Friday, June 8, 2018

Texas Man of Vision ~ Ferdinand Von Herff

by Kathryn Albright

Some individuals are larger than life. Ferdinand Von Herff was such a man. He was an educated man of vision, fortitude, discipline, and benevolence, and Texas is the better for the legacy he left. 

Ferdinand Von Herff
Ferdinand was the oldest of seven children, born in Germany into the noble Von Herff family. He had a thirst for learning, diligence and an analytical mind. In 1843 he graduated from the University of Giessen with a Doctor of Medicine degree. At 23 years of age, he was appointed the position of surgeon in the Hessian Army. He soon became recognized for his treatment of eye injuries and also for the rapidity of his surgical amputations. He was known for keeping his instruments and operating area clean with the use of plenty of soap and water even though this was before the advent of germ theory.

Germany was going through industrialization and the country was swept with a liberal form of socialism. A group of dispossessed noblemen formed a society that offered those in the middle and lower class the opportunity to emigrate to America (Amana Colonies, Brook Farms and Shakers.) In 1847 Ferdinand Von Herff traveled with 33 emigrants to Galveston and then north to the Llano River where they established the colony of Bettina. Although he came primarily as a colonizer, he brought his microscope, surgical instruments, and ether to Texas. He’d always had an affinity for languages and learned Apache and Comanche. He also discussed with them their particular cures and treatments. Despite the rough land and its inhabitants, Von Herff comported himself as a gentleman.

The settlement failed after the first year. No one among the professionals had much experience with or wanted to work a plow and the colony lacked leadership and direction. Yet despite the hardships, Von Herff became convinced that Texas was a land of potential and opportunity.

He had taken a leave of absence from the Hessian Army to make the journey and he’d also left a fiancĂ©e back in Germany. At the end of that same year, with his funds dwindling, he traveled home, married Mathilde Kingel-Hofer (a noble), and resumed his commission as a surgeon.

At the completion of his military service in 1850, Von Herff made plans to build another Utopian community, however he could not drum up interest among the German lower class who no longer wished to be managed by aristocrats. So, he gathered his medical supplies along with his wife and her clavier (she was a gifted singer and pianist,) and emigrated to Texas with his wife. They dropped the “Von” from their name which denoted nobility and became simply Herff.
Spanish Governor's Palace - San Antonio 

What a shock for the genteel Mathilde to contend with primitive living conditions, dusty, unpaved streets, flat adobe buildings and the occasional marauding Comanche and Apache. She was often homesick. To help with finances, Mathilde started giving voice and piano lessons.

Herff’s early patients were the indigent and he often had to barter for his services. Surgeries were done in farmhouse kitchens and outside under the shade of a tree, with people waving branches to ward off flies. Peering at cistern water with his microscope, he found many small moving bodies that he called “animalcules.” He removed them by boiling the water before using it for surgery. As he had in the Prussian Army, Herff became known for his careful, quick surgical technique and his cleanliness.

1856 Microscope

In 1854, he used chloroform for the first time for anesthesia when he surgically removed two large bladder stones from a popular Texas Ranger. This was done in an operating theatre with a crowd watching. With the ranger’s quick recovery, Herff became famous.

Herff was a Union sympathizer during the Civil War, as were many of the Germans living in Texas. Resistance to the southern cause was considered treason, and so for a brief time at the start of the war he served in the Confederate Army as a surgeon. Even so, he was threatened, although never physically harmed. His main allegiance was to medicine and helping his fellow man.

In 1865, he took his six sons (a seventh son died in infancy) and wife back to Germany to visit family and to tour Europe for two years. He exposed his sons to the character of German discipline, education, and corporeal punishment. He was a devoted husband and father.

In 1867 he and his family returned to Texas and he took up his practice again. Cholera and diphtheria ravaged the country at this time. He fought local superstition of hospital’s as places to die and a lack of interest and funds, to start San Antonio’s first hospital in 1869 (Santa Rosa Hospital.) Herff had compassion for the less fortunate and treated everyone with respect, no matter their ability to pay, their skin color, or their political views. He was active in civic affairs, enjoying discussions of philosophy and politics, truly interested in other’s point of view.

Lipan Apache

During the last of the Lipan Indian raids in 1888 where many of the neighboring San Antonio ranches and farms were raided and burned, the Herff property was spared. It was only afterwards that a white feather was discovered pinned by an arrow to the gatepost, a testament to the respect they had for him.

Among his patients were three state governors, noted ministers, top generals, some of the wealthiest people in the country, and the President of Mexico.

Mathilde passed away in 1910 and Ferdinand two years later at the age of 91. Their sons became well-respected professionals in their fields of architecture, banking, medicine, and law. 

Besides establishing the hospital, here are a few of Ferdinand Herff’s most notable accomplishments:
  • He was sought out for his adept treatment of arrows wounds. James H. Cook rode 130 miles to have an arrow removed from his calf by Herff.
  • A man disemboweled in a livery fight, his intestines mixed with dung and filthy straw, recovered after Herff spent thirty minutes meticulously washing the injury and then sutured him back up.
  • Herff removed cataracts from the eyes of an Apache chief successfully. (In appreciation, the chief gave him a young Mexican woman. The woman later married one of his good friends.)
  • At the age of 84, he performed emergency surgery in a farmhouse kitchen using spoons as retractors to remove an ectopic pregnancy.

He is known for many “firsts” in Texas:

  • First cataract operation – 1847
  • First perineal lithotomy – 1854
  • First hysterectomy – 1856 (and perhaps in the U.S.)
  • First diagnosis of uncinariasis (hookworm parasites) – 1864
  • First appendectomy – 1878
  • First gastrostomy – 1879

What a legacy one man's vision and industry left for Texas and the United States!

I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about this historic figure. I imagine he would have been an interesting man to talk to, likely with many more stories to tell than what is recorded about him!

Resource:  Early Texas Physicians 1830-1915, Edited by R. Maurice Hood, M.D. Published by State House Press, Austin, TX. 1999.

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Kathryn's latest historical western is The Prairie Doctor's Bride. 

1 comment:

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