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Dentistry Ohio

'Living' Article May 2012- A Texas Dentist in the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame

How is it that a Texas dentist has been inducted to the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame?  Meet Dr. Leonie von Zesch, born in Texas in 1882.  By age 19 she had graduated as a dentist from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco during an age when women dentists were few and far between.  She went on to postgraduate studies at both Chicago’s Northwestern Univ. and New York’s Columbia Univ. 

As chairperson of the Cincinnati Dental Society’s “Access to Care” committee, Dr. von Zesch has won my heart!  For nine months following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire she treated patients from a tent at Presidio.  When two years later the US Navy established the Pacific Fleet at San Francisco she was responsible for the dental care of thousands of sailors.  Next stop was a return to America’s southwest where she provided care for the Hopi Indians of Arizona’s high desert. 

It was 1915 when Leonie set out on her “15-year visit” to Alaska.  Soon thereafter she was licensed as the territory’s first woman dentist.  At times she ventured out behind the wheel of a Model-T Ford decked out on cross-country treks.  When necessary it was a dog sled that connected her with the Alaskans who needed her care.  The most isolated of villages were reached via biplane. 

“I’m totally smitten with this lady,” says Gail West, board member of the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.  “My husband and I have lived in Alaska for 50 years and wonder why we’ve never heard of her.” 

Dr. von Zesch’s story came to light only recently when her niece Jane Troutman, now 86 stumbled onto her aunt’s long lost manuscript among some boxes of ephemera she had left behind.  “I grew up with Leonie as my aunt not knowing that she had devoted so much of her time and energy to dentistry,” said Mrs. Troutman.  “I never recognized any of this until I opened the boxes in 2002 and read her manuscript.  I lived with greatness and didn’t know it.” 

In the 1930’s Dr. von Zesch returned to California where she worked with the states many unemployed during the Depression.  She also served young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps and treated patients at the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi, the state’s first prison for women. 

You can find more about her incredible legacy of selfless service at www.alaskawomenshalloffame.org.  Details concerning her now published autobiography “Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time” are found at www.leoniethebook.com. 

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