The History of Women in Dentistry Part III: Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch, A Woman Ahead of Her Time

In She's a Heroine, Writing History by Rose Keefe

When you think of an outlaw dentist, who comes to mind? Probably John Henry “Doc” Holliday, the dentist turned gunfighter who was portrayed by Val Kilmer in the 1993 hit Tombstone. Depending on your definition of an outlaw, the title could just as easily belong to Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch.

Leonie was an educated and independent woman who never killed anyone in an Old West gunfight, but she became a superior dentist at a time when that role was reserved exclusively for men. It was an accomplishment that, in the eyes of early 20th century Americans, made her as much of a renegade as Holliday, if not worse.

Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch was born in Texas in 1883, the oldest daughter of Leo and Elizabeth (Meusebach) Zesch. According to her autobiography, Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, her maternal grandfather had been a member of the German nobility who renounced his title when he immigrated to the U.S. He had wanted to fit into his new home as much as possible. His granddaughter would not be as dedicated to the status quo.

Dental School Graduate

In 1902, Leonie graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco, California. She went to work for a Dr. Matson, who treated her more like a servant than an assistant. Although women could be licensed as dentists in 1902, the industry still relegated them into supporting and secondary roles whenever possible.

Leonie had too much ability and ambition to tolerate such treatment. She soon went to work for another more enlightened dentist, who provided her with her own practice room. It was a rare accomplishment for a female dentist at that time and encouraged her to aim even higher.

Relief Effort

On April 18, 1906, San Francisco was devastated by the 1906 earthquake which killed 3,000 people and left 225,000 more homeless. Leonie went to the Army base on the Presidio and signed on as a dental surgeon. It was a career move that made her the first, and only, paid female dentist in the U.S. Army until 1951.

She approached her work with both skill and compassion, which made her so popular that both the mayor of San Francisco and Brigadier General Funston intervened when the Board of Health replaced her with a male dentist. They had her reinstated, and she remained until 1907, when the recovery effort was largely over.

Navy Career

A new opportunity beckoned in 1908, when the Navy’s Great White Fleet arrived in San Francisco to complete its round-the-world tour. Leonie negotiated for and received agreements from the commanders of both the U.S. Pacific and Atlantic Fleets to bring dentists and lab technicians on board their ships and provide dental services to the crew.

To conceal her gender from the less enlightened personnel at Navy headquarters, she had her paychecks made out to male colleagues. When these officials discovered the ruse and replaced her, Leonie did not protest. Although she had gotten plenty of work, she later wrote that the endeavor had not been as profitable as she’d hoped.

She was ready for something bigger, and it soon came.

Alaskan Adventure

After spending four years practicing dentistry in Mason, Texas, followed by three more years in Winslow, Arizona (where her patients included members of the Hopi and Navajo tribes), Leonie traveled to Cordova, Alaska, in December 1915, to visit her sister and brother-in-law. She would remain in the state for over 15 years, becoming its first female dentist.

Her Alaskan adventure began in February 1916, when Leonie agreed to substitute at the practice of a vacationing dentist. After receiving a special license to practice in Alaska, she signed a contract with the U.S. Board of Education to provide dental services to the native people in their isolated villages..

She risked her life more than once: in July 1929 her plane crashed north of the Arctic Circle, forcing to her to walk 52 miles to the coast, where a Coast Guard cutter picked her up. On another occasion, her dog team fell through the ice. Her guide told her to leave the dogs, but Leonie crawled on her stomach across the ice and pulled them out of the water.

She left Alaska in 1930 to take care of her mother in California, but her service was never forgotten. Eighty-two years later, in 2012, Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.

Back to California

During the Great Depression, Leonie provided dental services through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers in Gold Rush country. Once again, she bypassed ‘gender censors’ by signing her pay vouchers as ‘L. von Zesch,’ and delivered quality dental services until the CCC enlisted the services of the Dental Reserve Corp. When she appealed to the head of the CCC for clearance to stay, she was turned down, based on her gender.

Prison Term

Refusing to dwell on the disappointment, in July 1937, Leonie accepted a position as prison dentist for the California Institute for Women at Tehachapi. She recruited several of the prisoners and trained them to be dental assistants. In her autobiography, she recalled with amusement that one of her best students was a murderer.

“For once in my whole professional career, it stood me in good stead to be a woman,” she wrote.

Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch died in Oakland on July 7, 1944, at age 61. A reviewer of her autobiography noted, “Although she was unconventional for her time, she didn’t advocate blowing up the social structure. She just bumped it a bit, and then a bit more, until a gap opened that allowed her to do what she wanted, not what was expected of her.”

It was a determination that makes her a role model for women dentists, even today.

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