Once there was a town on the Texas Gulf Coast, which during its hey-day – which lasted barely a half-century from start to finish – rivaled Galveston, a hundred and fifty miles east. It started as a stretch of beach along Matagorda Bay called Indian Point, selected for no other reason than it was not Galveston by a German nobleman with plans to settle a large colony of German immigrants. Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels was a leading light of an organization called the Mainzer Adelsverein; a company of well-meaning nobles whose ambitions exceeded their business sense by a factor of at least three to one. They had secured – or thought they had secured – a large tract of land between the Llano and Colorado rivers approximately a hundred miles west of Austin. The truth of it was, all they had secured was the right to induce people to come and settle on it. So many settlers farming so many acres, and the backers of the Adelsverein would profit through being entitled to so many acres for themselves.
Among one of the small stories that I remember hearing, or reading after the monster tsunami that struck South-East Asia on the day after Christmas several years ago was the one about the clouds of mental-health professionals, breathlessly hurrying in to offer grief and trauma counseling to the understandably traumatized survivors – only to discover that – well, most of them were getting along fine. And if not fine, at least reasonably OK, Yes, they were grieving, they were traumatized by all sorts of losses, their lives and livelihoods, their communities and their families had been brutally ripped apart, but a large number of the survivors seemed inclined to be rather stoic about it all. They seemed to be more interested in pulling up their socks, metaphorically speaking, and getting on with it. It appeared that, according to the story, their culture and religion predisposed them to a mind-set that said: the incomprehensible does indeed happen, wheel of life, turn of fate and all that, and when it happens, pull up your socks and get on with it.
Some years ago, I succumbed to the blandishments of the overloaded bookshelves at Half-Price Books. I knew I shouldn’t have wandered into the section housing assortments of ‘Texiana’ but I did and I was tempted. Since I can resist anything but temptation, I gave in and bought a slightly oversized volume (with color plates!) with the gripping title of German Artist on the Texas Frontier: Friedrich Richard Petri for a sum slightly less than the current price on Amazon. Who was Friedrich Richard Petri, you might ask – and rightfully so for chances are practically no one outside of the local area might have heard of him, he finished very few substantial paintings, was only resident in the Hill Country of Texas for about seven years, and died relatively young.
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 …