I gave the profession youth, health, energy, enthusiasm, adequate training, a lifelong devotion, and an unquenchable zest for living. The profession has given me an abundant livelihood, the opportunity to help others, and outlet for my unlimited energy, adventure, travel, association with interesting people, and often a sustenance that was not only material, but also spiritual.Leonie von Zesch, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of The Jane G. Troutman Family Trust.
DDS 1902 College of Physicians and Surgeons, San Francisco
For Leonie von Zesch, the world beckoned, and it would do so throughout her eventful life. In a male-centered culture she was cheerfully persistent, finding opportunities where none existed and discovering ways to get around the roadblocks in her way. She craved adventure and wherever she went—even on vacation—she found people in need of dental care. Often these “temporary” offices of a few weeks or months extended into years as she treated patients in Texas, Arizona, California and Alaska.
A Confident Young Dentist
Leonie von Zesch obtained a dental degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1902. She felt lucky to find a dentist to take her on as an assistant, but he required her to work 13 or more hours a day, six days a week.
Her second employer gave von Zesch her own room and shared his assistant, a much more satisfactory arrangement.
Von Zesch’s office was destroyed by the fire that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. When she discovered the Army was setting up a refugee camp at the Presidio Army base, she offered to perform dentistry for the displaced. She was provided with a tent and became the first, and only, paid U.S. Army woman dentist until 1951.
After a few months of emergency dental work for earthquake refugees, the Board of Health decided to replace von Zesch with a male dentist. Fortunately, she had friends in high places that influenced the Board to reinstate her. She kept her job until the relief effort was completed.
Why Not the Navy?
The return of the Navy’s Great White Fleet from its round-the-world tour in 1908 provided von Zesch with another opportunity. Each ship held more than 1,000 seamen, and there were many ships. She organized a group of dentists and laboratories to provide dental care. To disguise her gender, she had checks made out to male colleagues, but von Zesch signed this one herself. Ultimately, the Navy brass learned of her sex and she was replaced by male dentists.
In 1915, during a visit to her sister in Cordova, Alaska, von Zesch was asked to take over the local dentist’s practice while he went on vacation. The idea was tempting, “for after all, my profession was not only a health service but also my means of earning a livelihood. And here was a field for abundant earning.” Von Zesch ended up working in Alaska for over 15 years, becoming the state’s first female dentist.
A Means of Transportation
During the Alaskan winter, von Zesch travelled by dog team to outlying villages. One time her dog team broke though the ice. Defying common sense and to the horror of her guide, von Zesch crawled forward on thin ice and managed to rescue the drowning dogs.
A Near Disaster
Von Zesch (right) and her assistant Mrs. Cheney (left) pose outside their office in Nome, Alaska. The two travelled by dog sled to schools and Catholic missions to give dental care to Inuit children. On one trip, they headed home just as the ice was melting. Only luck and a daring rescue saved them and their dogs from drowning.
A Slight Deception
In 1933, von Zesch discovered the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in California’s mountains and saw another opportunity. In four years she helped more than 4,000 boys. Because CCC authorities would not have approved a woman dentist, she signed her vouchers L. von Zesch. When discovered, she was replaced because she was a woman. This group of CCC boys worked in Lassen National Forest, California.
Wanted, Woman Dentist
In her later years, von Zesch took a position as prison dentist for the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi. She said, “for once in my whole professional career, it stood me in good stead to be a woman.” Von Zesch trained several dental assistants from among the prisoners; one of her best was a murderer.
A Typical Prisoner
Von Zesch enjoyed caring for the prisoners. Despite what people thought, the women were pleasant and often charming. Roberta Hall was a forger but became a writer and poet while in prison.
To learn more about von Zesch, read her autobiography Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time.
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