First Female Dental Surgeon of U.S. Army

On 20 April 1906, two days after a major earthquake caused significant destruction in San Francisco a 23 year old woman dentist Dr. Leonie von Meisebach Zesch walked on to the Presidio of San Francisco, California seeking refuge.   Her dental practice and home were destroyed by fires.  The U.S. Army hired her to provide emergency care to victims of the quake.   Dr. von Zesch was the first female dental surgeon in the Army. This is one of many interesting events in the life of this extraordinary woman. More about her dental career as well as stories of her adventure-filled life can be found in a book published in 2011, Leonie, A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Leonie von Zesch. [ ]


Dr. von Zesch, wearing the dark clothing,  is seen standing  in front of the Army tent used as her dental clinic.

Dr. von Zesch wrote about working for the U.S. Army.

“. . . I reported to Dr. John Sayre Marshall at Letterman General Hospital, Supervising Dental Surgeon for the U. S. Army.  He appointed me Acting U. S. Army Dental Surgeon . . .  on the Presidio Parade ground, to do emergency dental work for the refugees. There had never before been a woman Dental Surgeon in the U.S. Army. There has never been once since.”

Positions for contract civilian dental surgeons had been established in the Army in 1901 and women applicants had been rejected as dental surgeons on the basis of gender. Dr. von Zesch’s  Army service was short but very significant as related to acceptance of women in the dental profession and the military.  It is noteworthy that following the disaster relief work and not having a private practice she established a working relationship with individual U.S. Navy ship commanders to provide dental care for sailors when their ship was in-port in San Francisco.  The dental care requirement was large enough to require that she sub-contracted other dentists to provide care. Leonie is described by her family as “fiercely independent” and her own words describe a life of public service and personal adventure.  Leonie’s niece assembled her aunt’s writings and in 2011published, Leonie, A Woman Ahead of Her Time  by Leonie von Zesch.


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