How the 1st female dentist in the U.S. Army survived the 1906 California ‘Exodus’ #womenshistorymonth
Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch survived the horrors of the 1906 San Franscisco earthquake, set up her dental practice in the Presidio Army base during the aftermath and tended refugees in the makeshift camp. She became the first (and only) female dentist in the U.S. Army until 1951.
To begin March’s celebration of #WomensHistoryMonth, Dr. Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch seems a fitting selection.
A Daughter of Aristocrats
Leonie was born in 1882 in Texas, the daughter of German aristocrats. When she was six, she moved with her mother and sister to California. They finally settled in San Francisco, where Leonie attended the local high school and in 1902 earned a degree from the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, then known as the College of Physicians and Surgeons. She became a practicing dentist in June, 1902 after passing the California State Dental Board examination. At first, she began a the practice of a Swedish immigrant dentist, but the work was long and punishing, so much so that after treating patients from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week for some time, she collapsed from exhaustion.
Earthquake, then fire
By the time of the earthquake on April 18, 1906, Dr. Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch had opened her own dental office with a colleague. Unfortunately, on the second day of the disaster, her office succumbed to the fire that destroyed most of the city. Before the building went up in flames, she managed to get inside and save a few instruments.
“Before eight that morning, I was downtown persuading the Phelan Building agent to open the door to my offices. Water, coming through a huge hose from temporarily repaired and newly laid mains, was already breaking in the great front windows, tearing down curtains and flooding rich carpets. I had only time to get my colleague’s leather bag, pick up several dozen of his most cherished forceps and elevators, and save some instruments of my own. I could not get into the safe, so books and papers were destroyed. The roaring of the fire, the drumming of the water on walls, ceilings and furniture, and the frenzied yelling of men drove all but escape from my mind. In less than an hour after it had started burning, the whole large building was gutted.”
Leonie von Zesch, Leonie :A Women Ahead of Her Time
Afterward, the fire continued and forced Leonie and her mother from their rented rooms. They took what they could carry and started for the Presidio Army base, where many refugees were encamped.
“What I call the ‘Exodus’ fled down Van Ness Avenue to the water front, thence along the Barbary Coast and tough water front by an enormously long detour to the ferries; it was the only way, the town streets being on fire and close by the military.”
– Harry C. Carr, Complete History of the San Francisco Horror
There, her mother offered to assist the U.S. Army and Red Cross document survivors. Dr. Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch offered her skills as a dental surgeon with the Army and attended to the many now-homeless people. The Army paid and housed her and her mother. This arrangement went on until early July when the city tried to replace her in this role with a male dentist. Both the mayor, Eugene Schmitz and Brigadier General Funston, in charge of the Army, had her reinstated.
In total, 30,000 refugees were cared for by the government at the Presidio base.
“It should be called the ‘Exodus,’ for it was a Biblical scene. It was the headlong flight of those who were most terror-stricken to get out of the doomed city.”
Harry C. Carr, Complete History of the San Francisco Horror
By 1907, Dr. Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch tried to start a private dental practice of her own. She did not receive many new clients, but she had additional income from appointments as dentist to the Children’s Hospital and to the Maria Kipp Orphanage. In 1908, she received agreements from commanders of both the United States Pacific Fleet and the United States Atlantic Fleet to bring dentists and lab technicians aboard ships and provide dental services to members of the crews. While this kept her busy, it was not particularly profitable.
On the Move
By 1908, she was on the move again, this time moving back to Texas with her mother. She became licensed in the state and afterward declined one offer from a Dallas businessman to front a statewide chain of dental offices that he intended to manage in the background.
After working for several years in Texas, she moved to Arizona, becoming licensed in that state. She started a business as a traveling dentist, driving around in her Model T, treating school children for free; she also treated many from the indigenous Indian tribes in the area. After being in practice there for a few years, she left for on a visit to her sister and brother-in-law in the territory of Alaska.
Time for New Adventures
She eventually moved her practice to Alaska and served several communities there for a number of years, practicing in remote Inuit villages and even a near-death experience.
More to the Story
There is much more to the amazing Leonie von Zesch’s story. She had many more adventures before dying at the age of 61 in 1944. Information can be found on her Wikipedia page here. Also, you can purchase her autobiography here on Amazon.
She was elected posthumously to the Alaskan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012.
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About the blogger
Guest blogger Jenn Ochman, Database Publishing Production Specialist in the Branding and Communication Department at Benco Dental, dedicates her time outside work to historical reenactment. She shares knowledge of dental history with TheDailyFloss.com readers on a monthly basis.