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Adventurer, Survivor and Dentist: Dr. Leonie von Zesch, Graduate of the Class of 1902

Dr. von Zesch and an assistant tend to a patient in her San Francisco office. (Photo: Jane G. Troutman Family Trust)

August  22, 2011

Graduates of the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry have left dental school and moved on to accomplish many great things inside and outside of dentistry. One notable alumna is Dr. Leonie von Zesch, a graduate of the Class of 1902. Her recently published autobiography, Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, provides a close look at the life of a most adventurous female dentist who followed her heart's desire for travel, new experiences and helping people in need.

Leonie was one of 48 dental students in the 1902 graduating class and among just a handful of female students at the school, then known as the College of Physicians and Surgeons. At the time, she was the youngest dental school graduate in California.

Just four years after graduation she survived the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Her book provides a harrowing first-hand account of the famous event. After the earthquake and great fires that followed, Leonie set up a portable dental unit in San Francisco's Presidio and joined the U.S. Army's rescue efforts as the first female dental surgeon. She treated patients and survivors from a mobile tent in the Presidio for three months.

Leonie and Colleagues after the 1906 earthquake.

Leonie (second from left) and colleagues outside the emergency dental tent in the Presido. April, 1906. (Photo: Jane G. Troutman Family Trust)

A few years later she would commandeer a staff of 40 dentists in port cities of California and Washington as they treated U.S. Navy sailors. From there, she traveled throughout Texas and Arizona, and explored Chicago, New York and Europe. She eventually made her way to Alaska, where she stayed for more than fifteen years. Throughout each of her adventures, she would take advantage of her skills as a dentist and treat populations in need. She wrote about her experiences with the Hopi Indians of Walpi; Mormon families in Arizona; her Alaskan dog sled travels to provide treatment to gold miners and Inuit children; and other adventures.

Later in life, Leonie returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she took up permanent residence in Oakland. It was then that she recorded her stories of exploration and adventure, and those of human nature and the unique relationships between dentists and their patients. She argued that dentistry as a profession is as old as mankind, but was gratified that it was slowly becoming recognized as an important part of the health services.

Leonie Book Cover Image

The cover image of Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time. (Photo: Jane G. Troutman Family Trust)

In her book, she recalls a patient saying to her: "The public is becoming more tooth-conscious every year. And the relations between medicine and dentistry are becoming closer as time passes. Why...I can remember when a tooth was just a tooth to a physician. He'd pay as much attention to a tooth as to a stump in an adjacent field."

After Leonie's death in 1944, her manuscripts were passed down untouched through her family for decades. Her niece, Jane Troutman, recently discovered them and spearheaded the publishing of Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time. It offers a detailed account of her life and travels, and paints a vivid picture of one of the dental school's many notable alumni.

For more information about the book, or to purchase a copy, visit


Category Type: General, Alumni

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