Although a veterinarian was expected to do what he could to alleviate the suffering of a sick animal, conventional 19th century thinking decreed that any physician who attended to the needs of an Indian was committing an improper act. That is why the action of Dr. Ferdinand Ludwig von Herff, an immigrant to Texas from Germany, was so unusual.
Herff had settled a commune with 33 other Germans near the Llano River in Texas in 1847. After only a few weeks in the country, he performed successful cataract surgery on a Comanche brave who had been brought to him for help. Since the brave was blind, Herff decided to perform surgery in spite of the stigma associated with it.Because of the use of local anesthesia had not yet been developed, Herff resorted to the use of ether. First he meticulously scrubbed his hands, then washed the eye copiously with water that had been boiled free of "numerous small moving bodies."
Herff remembered it this way: "Proverbially one of the outstanding essentials in a cataract extraction is adequate light. In those primitive days the only forms of artificial illumination were candlelight and kerosene lamps whose rays were intensified by magnifying lenses. But the quandary lay in the fact that the only type of anesthesia available was ether by inhalation.
"The flammable nature of ether definitely contraindicated its use anywhere near a naked flame, so the only solution was to perform the surgery out of doors, aided by the sunlight. I decided to do the work out on a gravel-floored patio adjoining the bunkhouse.
"Requisites were a clear, entirely cloud-free, dustless, windless, insectless day. Surrounding the operating group stood a dozen 40-ers (name for German immigrants) with palm leaf fans to keep the flies away. The patient was put to sleep by my associate physician while the subject's head was steadied by Julie Herff, and I was ready to go to work."
The operation was successful, and the grateful brave promised to bring Herff a squaw. Three months later, he brought as a present a teenage Mexican girl, who became a ward of Miss Julie Herff. The act of compassion that returned the Indian's vision created a positive reputation for Dr. Herff, whose practice grew accordingly. Eventually he returned to Germany, then once again journeyed to Texas, where he settled in San Antonio and became known as a leader in medicine.
In 1850, he performed surgery on an Apache woman who was blind from bilateral cataracts and fitted her with glasses. She was so grateful that she invited him to the mission La Espada, south of San Antonio, and gave him an unusual gift a small beaded buckskin pouch that had been blessed. She said, "It is for you in gratitude for what you have done for me. God bless you!" When Herff opened the pouch, he found a necklace with 24 gold 20-peso coins, which he passed on to members of his family as a remembrance of the surgery.
Herff did not see that Apache woman again until 36 years later. At that time he was semiretired and had been asked to visit the fabled Geronimo, who was temporarily imprisoned at the quartermaster depot that would later become part of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He was being held there along with Natchez, the son of Cochise, and 30 other Apaches. According to the San Antonio Daily Express, Geronimo, who was approximately 50 years of age, was "something like 5 feet 8 inches in height and 9,000 feet in meanness."
Herff had never before met Geronimo, but the two immediately began to converse in Apache when the Indian woman joined them. Apparently, the physician had been called to assist Geronimo because she had remembered his skill and kindness to her so many years earlier.
According to Dr. Ferdinand Peter Herff, Herff's grandson, the pioneer doctor was responsible for a great many "firsts" in early Texas, including corrective surgery for "Jacksonian epilepsy," removal of cysts from a liver, curing tubercular pulmonary abscess, and isolation and discovery of the American type of hookworm. But these accomplishments notwithstanding, Herff should be remembered most for his compassion at a time when Indians were considered outcasts. Ferdinand von Herff was a first-rate frontier doctor.