The Most Amazing Woman You’ve Never Heard Of
Looking past the March Madness or the appeal of St. Patrick’s Day, March is also Women’s History Month. While there are many incredible women in dentistry who have forged the path for dentistry today, one woman stands out for her sheer strength of character as she navigated rural parts of the country and advocated for children’s dental health.
Leonie von Meusebach-Zesch
Yes, that name is not one you hear too often in dental history conversation. Leonie was born November 27, 1882 in Texas. In 1888 her mother moved her and her younger sister Leota to California, settling in San Francisco. Leonie graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1902 and became a practicing dentist. When the California earthquake of 1906 hit, Leonie enlisted as a dental surgeon with the army and assisted her mother in the American Red Cross to document and aid survivors. After being replaced by a man for that job, she went on to help at the Children’s Hospital and Maria Kipp Orphanage. During a train ride after moving back to Texas, it was requested she use her practice as a front to smuggle clothing, jewelry, and uncut diamonds across the border by a group of Belgians. She declined this offer.
Arizona and Alaska
Muesebach-Zesch lived in Arizona from 1912-1915, where she packed up her equipment in her Model T and drove to the more rural areas across the state. She would treat school age children and the people of the Hopi and Navajo nations in Walpi. She moved to Alaska after visiting her sister and brother-in-law. Leonie opened a dental practice in Nome, Alaska which burned to the ground 2 years later. Traveling via dogsled with her practice packed atop it, Leonie visited the outlying villages to help children and the Inuit peoples. It was in Alaska that she escaped death several times, even risking her own life to save her dogs which had fallen through the ice. She was rescued by famed dog musher Leonhard Seppala (see Togo) with minutes to spare after being stranded on a flooding riverbank. She also survived a plane crash north of the Arctic Circle and walked 52 miles to Kotzebue before being picked up by a Coast Guard cutter.
1930 and Beyond
Dr. Von Muesebach-Zesch left the cold north in 1930 to move back to California and aid her mother. During the Great Depression she worked for the UXA (Unemployment Exchange Association) and gave dental care to those out of a job. Up until 1943 she worked at the California Institution for Women as the resident dentist. She died at age 61 the following year. One of the pioneers of dentistry for children and the disadvantaged, she was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012.