Breaking Ground

In June 1902, 19-year-old Leonie von Meusebach-Zesch, dressed  smartly and carrying her new license from the California State Dental  Board, set out to create her mark on dental health in San Francisco. Her  first offer was half of what she made—the other half would go to her  male employer.  
   

“The medicines fitted into four boxes especially made for that purpose.  A two-foot square portable cabinet held my operating instruments. The foot pedal dental engine was still apart and wrapped in burlap as it had been shipped up from San Francisco… .”

Thus began Leonie von Meusebach-Zesch’s dog-sled dentistry in northern Alaska in 1925. Under contract to the U.S. Bureau of Education to “look after the Eskimo children’s teeth,”  von Meusebach-Zesch persuaded Roald Amundsen to sell her the dog team he’d taken on his polar expedition, acquired  a driver (Mr. Johnson), loaded the sled, slipped into her fur clothing and set off from Nome for Candle and Kotzebue country.

“On the eve of the day on which we were to leave, Mr. Johnson brought the sled to the edge of the sidewalk in front of the office. … Rolling and tying our sleeping bags, he stowed them at the front because, though bulky, they weighed comparatively light. A sled must be trimmed as carefully as a ship, heavy at the stern to lift the bow else it dips into the snow,” von Meusebach-Zesch wrote. “My outside parka was made of several hundred gray squirrel skins sewed together with reindeer sinew thread. This garment was elaborately trimmed with bands of shorn hide embroidery and tails of small animals. I also wore an inner parka made of calf reindeer hide, the soft, silky fur turned toward my body … with hip-length Lapp mukluks topped with a wide band of shaggy wolf pelt. “… Both our parkas had hoods bordered with wolf fur taken from the long hair of the animal’s chest,” her account continued. “The underchin part of the parka hoods was lined with wolverine. Neither wolverine fur nor wolf freezes in the moisture which breathing causes to accumulate when the hood is in placed over the head.”

  Von Meusebach-Zesch wore an inner parka of calf reindeer hide and hip-high mukluks trimmed with wolf pelt when she set off on her dog-sled dental rounds, covered with a long parka composed of gray squirrel skins sewn with reindeer sinew and a hood partially lined with wolverine.
   

Truly a woman before her time, von Meusebach-Zesch was born to a German countess and husband who married to obtain a housekeeper and cook in Llano, Texas, in 1882. At a time in which women stayed home and did what they were told, von Meusebach-Zesch’s mother picked up Leonie and her younger sister, Leota, left her husband and moved to California, where she bought a home and took in boarders to make ends meet. In 1902 at the age of 19, von Meusebach-Zesch graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco. She worked to build a practice there, only to lose it and her home in the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

Recovering from Tragedy

For nine months following the disaster, von Meusebach-Zesch volunteered her services to refugees and victims, operating from a tent in the Presidio. Her next step was to offer her skills to servicemen, organizing a cadre of dentists to serve personnel aboard U.S. Navy ships in California. Her contract with the Navy ended in 1912 when an act of Congress created the U.S. Navy Dental Corp.

Looking forward once again, von Meusebach-Zesch set her sights on establishing a dental practice in Winslow, Ariz., and began treating Hopi Indians on the reservation and patients in northern Arizona’s Mormon communities. In 1915, though, von Meusebach-Zesch’s wanderlust took over again and she set sail for Alaska, anticipating a short visit with her sister and her sister’s husband in Cordova.

Attempting to cross the swift and strong Nome River by dog sled,  von Meusebach-Zesch and her assistant realized the raging torrent was  on the verge of sweeping them and their dogs away, when they spied  legendary musher Leonhard Seppala riding to their rescue on a  Caterpillar tractor.  
   

“There were breathtaking, gorgeous sunsets–when there was a sun–and equally breathtaking displays of northern lights on cold, clear nights,” she wrote. “The moonlit landscape, a miracle of sharply contrasted black and white with fairy touches of silver, was something so lovely that it seemed unreal. The vast, splendid new country took possession of my heart.”

First, von Meusebach-Zesch took over a Cordova dentist’s practice so he could take a vacation. Later, when he died of influenza, she took it on permanently–only to have the bottom fall out of the Cordova economy when the price of copper “slid to bedrock.” She moved on to Anchorage where “there is still quite a bit of construction going on in connection with the government railroad.”

Once in Alaska’s biggest railroad town, von Meusebach-Zesch saw the opportunity to delve into one of the passions that drove her life—providing dental health care for children. In conjunction with Jane Mears, president of the Parent-Teacher Association and wife of Col. Frederick Mears, chief engineer of the Alaska Engineering Commission (responsible for building the railroad), von Meusebach-Zesch established a program for schoolchildren. Soon, though, her penchant for adventure had her on the road again—this time headed for the gold fields of Nome.

  Wainwright and Point Hope were running low on fresh meat when von Meusebach-Zesch joined Coast Guardsmen and village hunters in a walrus hunt. Shooting from the leading boat, von Zesch brought down her target.
   

Once there, von Meusebach-Zesch again set up a dental practice but her primary objective was to work the claims into which she had heavily invested. It wasn’t long, however, until she discovered those claims were essentially worthless and she had to rely on her dental practice to support herself. It was at that point that she hit the trail with her assistant and her dog sled to take health care into remote villages. First with a driver, then driving her own team, von Meusebach-Zesch set out to treat her patients.

At the end of one such trip, von Meusebach-Zesch and  her assistant set out for the return trip to Nome against  sage advice.

“You are taking great chances,” said Father Post, of the Hot Springs Mission. “The spring thaw has begun. In two days’ time there will be no trail and the deep snow will be soft, almost impassable. The current of Nome River is swift and strong and deep during low water. Now, with all this snowmelting (sic) it will be a raging torrent.”

The dentist and her assistant hitched up their dogs and set off despite the warning, aiming for their next stop, Jacob’s roadhouse. Two days later, their food had run low, as had food for the dogs. They began to break through the riverbed on which they were traveling, into the water below. Finally, they had to acknowledge they’d reached an impasse and were trapped by the river. Disaster seemed imminent.

Seppala to the Rescue

“Mrs. Cheney and I were both quiet women. Had we been the hysterical type, we would not have undertaken this trip, or having undertaken it, stuck it out,” von Meusebach-Zesch wrote. Their salvation came from none other than the legendary musher Leonhard Seppala, of Iditarod Trail diphtheria serum run fame, who had learned of their predicament and ridden to their rescue on a Caterpillar tractor borrowed from a Hammond Mining Company camp.

Even this close call didn’t slow von Meusebach-Zesch in her mission to treat patients. Along with her dog-sled adventures, von Meusebach-Zesch also visited Alaska Native villages on Little Diomede, Saint Lawrence and King islands—traveling aboard the U.S.S. Boxer, the U.S. Department of Education vessel assigned to Alaska waters.

Shortly before von Meusebach-Zesch left Alaska to care for her ailing mother in California, she boarded the Northland, a Coast Guard cutter that took her into Point Barrow and other far north villages.

On this trip, the captain one day said the Eskimos of Wainwright and Point Hope didn’t have sufficient fresh meat to get through the winter. “Perhaps we had best go after some walrus,” von Meusebach-Zesch wrote. “We called by the two villages and picked up their best hunters outfitted with weapons and several comiacs. … When we finally sighted a herd of walrus that didn’t sight us first …  I (was) in the leading comiac (sic) with (a) twenty-five  millimeter gun.

“…I picked my target, a neck several feet wide and having been a good marksman at one time, of course did not miss the broad surface at something like fifty feet,” von Meusebach-Zesch wrote.

In 1930, von Meusebach-Zesch returned to California and in 1944, at the age of 61, she passed away, leaving her unfinished book in bankers’ boxes for her niece, Jane Troutman, to find and publish.

“Now,” Troutman said, “I’m waiting for the right someone to convert the book into a movie.”

Read more about von Meusebach-Zesch at www.Leoniethebook.com. Von Meusebach-Zesch was selected for induction into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012, and her bio is available at www.AlaskaWomensHallofFame.org. 

Gail West is a 50-year resident of Alaska and has been writing about the state for 30 years. She lives in Anchorage with her husband, Butch.

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