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Dr. Leonie von Meusebach Zesch spent the majority of her life caring for children, the disadvantaged and U.S. service men and women through her profession of dentistry. In 1902 von Zesch, the daughter of a German countess, earned her Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco at the age of 19. During the course of her lifetime, von Zesh carried her dental expertise from the Hopi Indians in Arizona to the frozen reaches of Little Diomede Island and other points north, often by dogsled, to care for Alaska’s indigenous people.
Von Zesch was born in Texas in 1883, and at age 5 moved with her mother and sister to California. Four years after earning her dentistry degree, von Zesch’s home and office burned to the ground in the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906 and she moved on to Texas, then to Arizona where she provided dental services to Army and Navy officers and servicemen. She also attended to Hopi elders and residents in northern Arizona Mormon communities. On Christmas Day 1915, von Zesch arrived in Cordova, Alaska, where her sister and brother-in-law lived, and she temporarily took over a practice for a local dentist. After obtaining a special license to practice, Gov. Thomas Riggs Jr., appointed her to the Territorial Board of Dental Examiners. In the spring, she made a long trip to Fairbanks, Dawson and Skagway and decided to open her own dental practice in Cordova. She returned to Cordova in 1917. Waiting for her professional certification from the territory, von Zesch set up an interim practice at Katalla and did some postgraduate study at Northwestern University. She then assumed the practice of a Cordova dentist who died in the influenza epidemic.
After the collapse of copper prices, von Zesch moved to the new railroad town of Anchorage in 1920. There she met and worked with Jane Mears, president of the Parent Teacher Association, to develop a dental care program for schoolchildren. She promoted a healthy diet and healthy teeth. In 1923 von Zesch took a break to study writing at Columbia University and to travel in Europe. She returned to Alaska in 1925, this time living in Nome. She opened a dental office, but two months later the building burned to the ground. Needing money but also seeing a need for dental services for Alaska Native people in their isolated villages, von Zesch signed a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Education (which provided medical services as well as operating schools in Alaska). For the next five years, she traveled, usually just with her assistant – another woman – by dog team from Nome around the Seward Peninsula, north to Barrow and to Little Diomede, Saint Lawrence, and King islands. As she traveled, she provided dental services to others as well, often setting up her dental chair, as needed, at roadhouses.
Travel, summer and winter, around Alaska is challenging. Returning to Nome from a trip to White Mountain and Pilgrim Hot Springs, von Zesch suffered from snow blindness. On a trip at the end of one winter, she and her assistant were stranded on a flooding riverbank and rescued with only minutes to spare by famed dog musher Leonhard Seppala. In July 1929 heading for Point Barrow, the plane she was aboard crashed north of the Arctic Circle. She “walked out” 52 miles to Kotzebue. Picked up by a Coast Guard cutter, she proceeded on her trip to Barrow and East Cape, Chamisso Island, before returning to Nome.
After 15 years in the North, von Zesch left in 1930 to care for her mother in California. During the Great Depression, she provided dental services with the UXA (Unemployment Exchange Association) in Oakland and then for Civilian Conservation Corps workers in California’s gold rush country. Over two years she drove 150,000 miles from camp to camp providing dental care. In 1937 she was appointed the resident dentist at the California Institution for Women, the state’s prison for women in Tehachapi, and worked there until 1943. She died the following year at age 61.
In the 1920s America did not have many women professionals. Dr. von Zesch was one. She was the first woman dentist licensed in the Territory of Alaska. Most of her career was spent working in isolated and remote areas in the southwestern United States and Alaska. Throughout her career she exhibited a commitment to promoting and providing dental care to children and to those who were disadvantaged.
Von Zesch, Leonie, Leonie – A Woman Ahead of Her Time. Studio City, California: Lime
Orchard Publications, 2011