Waowawanaonk (Peter Wilson)
Unlike Edward Cutbush and Elizabeth Blackwell, who are historically recognized for their ground-breaking impact on the medical field, Peter Wilson is widely unrecognized in the annals of history.
Dr. Wilson, whose birth name was Waowawanaonk, was a member of the Cayuga Nation but spent much of his childhood on the Seneca Buffalo Reservation in Erie, New York. In Erie he received an education from the Quaker reservation school, which profoundly impacted his social beliefs and intellectual curiosity. Throughout his life he would continue to maintain connections with the Quaker Society of Friends, and after graduation he decided to continue his formal education at the Geneva Medical College.
Dr. Wilson graduated in 1844, and likely became the first Native American to graduate with a medical degree in the United States although historians often cite Susan La Flesche as the first indigenous person to earn a medical diploma in the United States. The Smithsonian Magazine even published an article on March 1, 2017, titled “The incredible Legacy of Susan la Flesche, the First Native American to Earn a Medical Degree”, but she did not receive her M.D. until 1889, fifty-five years after Waowawanaonk received his.
According to the National Museum of the American Indian, after graduating from Geneva Medical College, Dr. Wilson became an Assistant Surgeon with the United States Army. He soon transitioned from being a practicing doctor to a full-time advocate for the land rights of Native Americans. Dr. Wilson fought for fair compensation for the Seneca and Cayuga, which had lost vast swaths of land in unequal treaties. He began as an interpreter at the New York Agency of the Office of Indian Affairs to help connect Native Americans to the New York State Government, but soon became much more vocal in his activism.
Dr. Wilson traveled around New York and gave speeches bringing awareness to the plight of Native Americans in the United States. His most famous was given at the New York Historical Society. Afterwards, one member present wrote that he spoke with “such pathos and eloquence of his people and his race, their ancient prowess and generosity, their present weakness and dependence…that all present were deeply moved by his eloquence.”