Frontier Surgeon or Ferdinand and Hermann’s Excellent Frontier Adventure

The practice of medicine in these United (and for the period 1861-1865, somewhat disunited) States was for most of the 19th century a pretty hit or miss proposition, both in practice and by training. That many sensible people possessed pretty extensive kits of medicines – the modern equivalents of which are administered as prescriptions or under the care of a licensed medical professional – might tend to indicate that the qualifications required to hang out a shingle and practice medicine were so sketchy as to be well within the grasp of any intelligent and well-read amateur, and that many a citizen was of the opinion that they couldn’t possibly do any worse with a D-I-Y approach. Such was the truly dreadful state of affairs generally when it came to medicine in most places and in all but the last quarter of the 19th century – they may have been better off having a go on their own at that.

Most doctors trained as apprentices to a doctor with a current practice. There were some formal schools of medicine in the United States, but their output did not exactly dazzle with brilliance. Successful surgeons of the time possessed two basic skill sets; speed and a couple of strong assistants to hold the patient down, until he was done cutting and stitching. Most of the truly skilled doctors and surgeons had their training somewhere else – like Europe.

But in San Antonio, from 1850 on – there was a doctor-surgeon in practice, who ventured upon such daring medical remedies as to make him a legend. His patients traveled sometimes hundreds of miles to take advantage of his skill …
Doctor Ferdinand Ludwig von Herff, soon to drop the aristocratic ‘von’ from his name, and to practice his considerable medical talents on behalf of anyone in need. For besides being supremely well-trained for the time, and exquisitely skilled – Doctor Herff was an idealist, one of those rare sorts who are prepared to live their lives in accordance with the principals they publicly espouse. He was a relation of John Muesebach’s, and came to Texas in 1847 as part of a circle of young idealists called the Forty, who had a plan to establish a utopian commune along the ideas espoused by social critics of the time. (Yes, there were all sorts of interesting and experimental communes sprouting like mushrooms all during the early 19th century, very few of which lasted longer than the 1960s variety)

Like the 1960s variety, most of Ferdinand Herff’s companions in the Forty were students of universities at Giessen or Heidelberg, or the industrial school at Darmstadt. Hermann Spiess had already toured through the United States and Texas before returing to Germany with all kinds of ambitious plans. Originally the plan was set up their community in Wisconsin, but when one Count Castell, who was an original member of the Mainzer Adelsverein heard of their intentions, he offered them funding and support if they would establish it on the Verein land-grant in Texas instead. The offer was accepted and in mid-summer of 1847 the Forty arrived in Texas, led by Herff, Spiess and Gustav Schleicher, a trained engineer who would eventually oversee building of the rail system throughout Texas. They had brought along a huge train of baggage, supplies and equipment, including seeds and grapevines, mill machinery, a small cannon, many dogs, one woman – a cook/housekeeper named Julie Herf (no relation), Doctor Herff’s complete collection of surgical impedimenta, and a good few barrels of whiskey. By late fall, they had moved all this (and a herd of cattle) to their town-site, on the north bank of the Llano River near present-day Castell. They set up tents, built a long building to use as a sort of barracks and common-room, planted crops and named their little town Bettina, after a leading star-intellectual of the day – and settled in to live their dream of communal living close to the land; think of it as Ferdinand and Hermann’s Excellent Frontier Adventure.

It didn’t last beyond a year, of course – being very long on ideals and enthusiasm, but short on relish for actual, back-breaking agricultural labor. The community foundered on the rocks of human nature and self-interest; most of the members remained within the larger society of the Germans in Texas, but not before Doctor Herff performed a single amazing feat of surgery there. This took place within weeks of his and the Forty’s arrival, during that halcyon period when Meusebach’s peace treaty with the Comanche held between the two peoples. A Comanche with an advanced case of cataracts appeared at Bettina, asking to be healed. Dr. Herff had already been treating various Indians who presented themselves, and would eventually become fairly fluent in the Comanche and Apache dialects – but this was a tall order and a touchy situation. They did not dare turn the Comanche away. Amazingly enough, Dr. Herff had brought the latest in ophthalmologic instruments with him and had performed cataract surgery – in Germany.

There were certain other challenges to be met; they would have to use ether to anesthetize the patient, and Doctor Herff would have to have sufficient light to operate. Ether being flammable, there was no way to light an indoor surgical site with the usual sorts of lamps and candles with reflectors. He would have to operate outdoors. Being a fastidiously tidy sort of man, he insisted on it being a clear, dust-free, windless and insect-free day, and boiling the water used to irrigate the eyes of his patient. A dozen of the commune members stood by, armed with palm-leaf fans to keep flies away – and Dr. Herff set to work, probably knowing that this was an operation that could not be botched. Even if there was peace between the German settlers and the Comanche, an unhappy Comanche warrior was not likely to express his unhappiness in a letter of complaint to the medical guild.

Fortunately for Dr. Herff and the other Forty, the primitive surgery was wildly successful, the patient was ecstatic at being able to see well again, and as he departed, he promised the doctor the most generous reward at his command – a woman. One can imagine a great deal of jollity at Dr. Herff’s expense over the next three months from the other young men of the Forty … but at the end of the time, the Comanche appeared again, with a young Mexican girl in tow, and handed her over to Dr. Herff. Who promptly handed her over to the care of the only other woman in Bettina, the housekeeper/cook, Julie Herf. The girl’s name was Lena, or Lina; she had been a long time with the Comanche and was never able to recall enough about her original family to return to them. Eventually, she married Hermann Spiess.

Dr. Herff practiced medicine tirelessly for most of the next sixty years, establishing San Antonio’s first hospital and several medical associations and serving on the Texas Board of Medical Examiners. Generally, if there is a surgical ‘first’ anywhere in Texas during the last half of the 19th century, it’s a sure bet that he was the surgeon responsible.
(Details in this article, here.)

9 thoughts on “Frontier Surgeon or Ferdinand and Hermann’s Excellent Frontier Adventure”

  1. When you realize that the ancient Egyptians practiced brain surgery you wonder how much more we don’t know.

    With cataract surgery don’t they implant a lens? I wonder what the doctor did.

  2. Mmm, Atritos, I was around in the 1960s, and I recall the various communes and experimental communities quite clearly. I lived in So-Cal, and they were everywhere. Some were harmless, like the Hippie Hog Farm, which was supposed to be up in Big Tujunga Canyon someplace. Others, like the Manson Family … weren’t. Most of them didn’t last any longer than the early 19th century versions, although one of them continues to this very day – the Mormons. (Interesting case, the LDS … started out as one thing, and ended up as completely something else…)

  3. The procedure of displacing cataracts out of the axis of vision is very old. It was practiced in India for a millennium and, interestingly enough, was also known to southwest Indians who used a cactus thorn of a certain variety as a surgical instrument. The lens was not removed but was detached enough to allow it to fall into the anterior chamber where it was out of the axis of vision. This cleared vision but did not restore focus. External corrective lenses were used until very recently (1970s)

    Indians in south America used cocaine for topical anesthesia but I don’t know if this crossed the Isthmus of Panama, a barrier to other important cultural artifacts like the potato (Incas) and the tomato (Aztecs). Both came to Europe from the New World but did not penetrate the other continent.

    Cataract surgery was pretty rough and ready until quite recently when the artificial lens was invented. A friend of mine, an ophthalmologist, invested in one of the first companies to market such a lens and he has practiced as a hobby for the past 30 years. His wife rented the Laguna Niguel Ritz Carlton restaurants for his 40th birthday party. The painter, Claude Monet, who suffered from cataracts during his “blue period” bitterly regretted having his cataract removed from his “painting eye” and believed he never recovered from the loss of focus.

    Anesthesia dates to 1846 but antisepsis came only in 1867, making anesthesia a mixed blessing as it led to more deaths from postop sepsis.

    In the 1890s there was a surgeon in Arizona famous for his success with gunshot wounds of the abdomen. He spent a lot of time on trains going to his various patients. Repair of intestines was rarely successful until the “Murphy button,” which Chicago’s John B Murphy invented about 1900. He was made famous by the Haymarket bombing, which injured many policemen. He operated for two straight days without sleep and was afterword so resented by his colleagues that the Chicago Medical Society blackballed him long after he was world famous. My aunt was one of his surgical nurses at Mercy Hospital.

  4. Oops. “They ARE interesting, informative and generate fascinating comments.” Sorry, I need my eyes checked. Heh.

  5. Thanks, MK for the additional info. (Might you be able to advise me on down the road, on certain practices in 19th century medicine? I may have medical issues coming up in the next couple of books, and I like to get things right!) Dr. Herff was an interesting character, even more so as his success rate was pretty good, although it seems that a lot of the time, he was operating out-of-doors.

    I’ll post some more of my odd Texas historical incident posts … for example, did you know that San Antonio was briefly taken over by a Mexican Army in 1842, and the entire district court and all the members of the bar were taken prisoner?

    Seriously, what historically happened is often so much more outrageous than anything a writer could ever make up.

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