Leonie von Zesch: A pioneer for dentistry

June 21, 2012

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake that brought down buildings and ignited fires was not enough to keep dental surgeon Leonie von Zesch from practicing. Neither were the bone-chilling temperatures of Alaska where she reached indigenous peoples by dogsled, Model T, or bi-plane and Arizona’s heat where she performed emergency dental surgery along a dusty roadside.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake that brought down buildings and ignited fires was not enough to keep dental surgeon Leonie von Zesch from practicing. Neither were the bone-chilling temperatures of Alaska where she reached indigenous peoples by dogsled, Model T, or bi-plane and Arizona’s heat where she performed emergency dental surgery along a dusty roadside.

In an era when a woman dentist was practically unheard of, von Zesch displayed determination and passion for dentistry that would undoubtedly make her remarkable in any time period.   

Tales of two of her practices that burnt down, her encounters with Eskimos, Hopi Indians, and gold-rush miners, and many more of von Zesch’s adventures are told in the book “Leonie: A Woman Ahead of her Time.”

The book, which is based on von Zesch’s journals, is hard to put down as it recounts her numerous achievements. One of those notable achievements is when she traveled by chartered launch in 1908 to make a pitch to provide dental services to naval officers in the Pacific naval fleet of the U.S. Navy – a contract that she won.

Von Zesch was born in Texas in 1882 and graduated in 1902 from California’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, which is now the University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry.

Her journals were packed away for decades and were eventually discovered by her niece in California, who compiled them for the book.

Part of what makes the book so compelling is the attention to detail and realization that von Zesch was an eyewitness, in some cases, to important, everyday history. When the earthquake hit, von Zesch recalls how she and her mother winnowed their possessions to just a few and escaped fires that threatened their home by wagon to the Presidio.

“I had with me my aquarium of gold fish, my alligator suitcase (our one piece of luggage),” she writes. “I wore the grass-green dress and jaunty little hat with flower-covered bandeau that two days ago I hoped might lend zest to a busy, but unexciting spring day.”

In a move that a reader comes to expect of von Zesch, she quickly sought to be of service by setting up an emergency dental service under the auspices of the U.S. Army. She worked in a tent to treat earthquake refugees.

She recounts treating one man who had “a number of teeth broken and in the top of his head was a triangular hole. When a brick had fallen on him, he closed his mouth so suddenly and so hard that his teeth had given way under the impact. When the hospital steward poured peroxide into the cranial cavity it boiled up like a miniature geyser. After a dressing was put on it, I pulled the broken teeth.”

In Alaska, where she intended to make short visit, she stayed for 15 years. She traveled, often by dogsled, with a foot pedal dental engine, and other instruments, and sometimes was paid for her services with gold nuggets.

Von Zesch was an early proponent of providing oral care to people in need, particularly children, and her pioneering role in Alaska’s history was recognized this year when she was named to the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame where her contributions to health care were cited.

The January edition of Alaska Update, a newsletter published by the Alaska Dental Association, also took note of her important contributions to dentistry

“Throughout her career, she exhibited a commitment to promoting and providing dental care to children and those who were disadvantaged,” it was noted in the newsletter.

After leaving Alaska, von Zesch worked through the Great Depression and provided dental services to the men employed by the Civilian Conservation Corp. Her final professional post was as the first dentist on staff at the first women’s prison in California, the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi.

Von Zesch died in 1944 following a long illness, but her contributions to dentistry live on.