On March 18, 1889, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte becomes the first Native American woman to graduate from medical school. She was top of her class at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania.
As an eight-year-old on Nebraska’s Omaha Reservation, La Flesche experienced a formative moment: staying at the bedside of an elderly Omaha woman in agonizing pain, waiting all night for the white doctor to arrive. The woman died overnight and the doctor never appeared.
"It was only an Indian and it [did] not matter," she later recalled—had the old woman been white, La Flesche intuited, the doctor would have hurried over at the first notice.
La Flesche went on to study at Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania and, at 24, graduated a year early. While her colleagues encouraged her to stay and practice medicine on the East Coast, she returned home to Nebraska with the intent of serving her community. Soon after, she became the sole physician for more than 1,200 people in the Omaha and nearby Winnebago Tribes, across over 400 miles. After she married in 1894 and had two sons, she continued to serve patients across the reservation, taking her children on house calls as needed. In 1913, with help of her husband and donations, La Flesche opened up the first privately funded hospital on a reservation. She intended to help anyone who needed it, white or Native.
La Flesche was a passionate advocate on the reservation for temperance. Alcohol had been introduced to the Omaha tribe by white fur traders and had devastated the community (La Flesche's own husband died of complications from alcoholism). She lobbied the state legislature, begging them to not allow whiskey peddlers to sell in the reservation, and eventually did persuade the Office of Indian Affairs to ban liquor sales in towns formed in the reservation.
After several years of declining health, La Flesche died of bone cancer on September 18, 1915.
To this day, Native Americans face lower life expectancy and a disproportionate level of disease due to a number of structural factors entrenched over decades, including inadequate education, poverty and discrimination in the delivery of health services.