Ferdinand and Hermann’s Excellent Frontier Adventure

(As promised during the Zoom meet-up this afternoon, the absolutely true story of the first cataract surgery in Texas.)

The practice of medicine in these United States for most of the 19th century was a pretty hit or miss proposition. 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 that patients may have been better off having a go with the D-I-Y approach. Doctors trained as apprentices to a doctor with a current practice or studied some books and hung out a shingle. Successful surgeons possessed two basic skill sets; speed and a couple of strong assistants to hold the patient down, until he was done cutting and stitching.

But in South Texas from 1850 on, there was doctor-surgeon who became a legend, for his skill, advanced ideas, and willingness to go to any patient, anywhere and operate under any conditions – and most usually with a great deal of success. Doctor Ferdinand Ludwig von Herff, who dropped the aristocratic ‘von’ almost immediately upon arriving in Texas, was also an idealist, and prepared to live in accordance with his publicly espoused principles. He came to Texas in 1847 as part of a circle of young men called the “Forty,” who had a plan to establish a utopian commune along ideas fashionable at the time.

Like the 1960 variety of idealists, most of Ferdinand Herff’s companions were students of various German universities. Originally, they were going to establish their community in Wisconsin, but the Mainzer Adelsverein – the Society of Noblemen of Mainz, who had taken up what they thought would be a promising entrepreneur grant in Texas – offered funding and support if they come to Texas instead. In the mid-summer of 1847 the Forty arrived in Texas, led by Herff, his friends Hermann 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 to the doctor), 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 a site 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 Bettina von Arnim – a leading star-intellectual of the day. They settled in to live their dream of communal living, close to the land.

It didn’t last beyond a year, of course. The Forty were long on ideals, enthusiasm, and funds, but short on relish for back-breaking agricultural labor. The community foundered on the rocks of human nature and self-interest, but not before Doctor Herff performed a single amazing feat of surgery.

This took place within weeks of his and the Forty’s arrival, during that halcyon period when an Adelsverein-negotiated peace treaty with the Comanche held between the two peoples – the German settlers brought over by the Adelsverein, and the Southern or Penateka Comanche. A Comanche warrior 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 fluent in 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 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 the surgical site with the usual sorts of lamps and candles with reflectors. Dr. Herff would have to operate outdoors, as would often be the case in his subsequent medical career on the frontier. Being a fastidiously tidy sort of man, he insisted on it being a clear, dust-free, windless, and insect-free day, and that only boiled and cooled water be used to irrigate the eyes of his patient. A dozen 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.

Fortunately, the 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. Dr. Herff 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 captive for a long time 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, 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, he was the surgeon responsible for it. There is a historical marker on San Antonio’s Riverwalk marking the site of one of his homes, and another on a hill outside the little town of Boerne, where Dr. Herff and his family later spent the summers.

(Dr. Herff himself also appears very briefly as a character in Adelsverein – The Sowing, and again in The Quivera Trail. A retelling of the historic cataract surgery also appears as an episode in the YA adventure Lone Star Glory.)

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

  1. There actually were examples of primitive cataract surgery among Indians. The procedure is called “couching,” and is still used in some primitive societies. I have forgotten the source that stated it was known in pre-Columbian America but a sharp blade, very sharp and small, was used to push the opaque lens out of the visual axis. This restores distance vision, which is usually sufficient in pre-literate societies.

    I have no idea what the procedure was in the case of your story but lens implants are a modern development.

  2. Thanks for posting, Sarge, that’s a great story. I also attended the Zoom meeting, and mentioned that cataract surgery was not available to my wife’s German grandmother, who was completely blind when she passed away. When I made the comment, I noticed that our German friend, Ralf, gave me a double take more or less after the fashion of James Finlayson in the old Laurel and Hardy shorts. Mea culpa! When I checked with my wife, she set me straight. It was not her German grandmother, but her Russian one, who was blind when she passed away in 1962, because cataract surgery was still not available in the worker’s paradise, even at that late date. So much for my genealogical expertise.

  3. It should be noted that the Comanche paid the bill for his medical miracle with a captured slave girl who was freed by the white European doctor. Should that be included in every history book?

  4. The Comanche probably had quite few European slave girls. The movie “The Searchers.” I used to have several books about the memories of white children captured by Indians.

  5. Quanah Parker, last free war chief of the Comanche, was half-white, son of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured survivor of a massacre of her family. At least in the 90s a book about her life, A Woman of the People, was required high school reading in Texas…

  6. Cataract surgery indeed goes back to the Paleolithic, and evidence of it has been found around the world — but a steady hand and an obsidian or flint blade are not exactly ideal surgical fun-times. Even a metal blade doesn’t make it fun.

    OTOH, it had a higher success rate than most other surgeries. Which is scary.

  7. Charley – In today’s world, Dr. Herff’s legacy is now tainted by the fact that he was a slave owner!

  8. Speaking of the Comanches, a wonderful account of the extent to which they and other Indian tribes were in control of a vast portion of northern Mexico at the time of the Mexican war was written by a young Englishman by the name of George Frederick Ruxton. It is available online at:


    The country was basically depopulated and in constant fear of Indian attack in much of Mexico north of Durango. For all practical purposes the Indians had actually reconquered the country. Another good read relevant to the subject is “Doniphan’s Epic March”:


    Among other things, Doniphan’s 800 men defeated a Mexican force that outnumbered them four to one in troops and two to one in artillery at the Battle of the Sacramento River. They also attacked an Indian force and rescued a number of kidnapped Mexicans during their return march.

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