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Dr. Sofie Herzog

A scalpel in hand, Texas’ first female surgeon forged the way for women in the medical field

When the townspeople of Brazoria, Texas, learned that a new doctor was moving into the neighborhood, they rejoiced. Founded in 1828 on Stephen F. Austin’s original land grant in southeast Texas, the dusty Western town had its share of churches, schools, and general stores, but frontier doctors were few and far between. The celebration ended, however, when they discovered that the new physician was a woman — and that she had short, cropped hair topped by a man’s hat and rode astride her horse instead of using a more ladylike sidesaddle. This behavior would have been social suicide for most women in the 1800s, but Dr. Sofie Herzog was no slave to the conventions of society. At 49, she was an outspoken woman with boundless energy, attractive features, and advanced medical skills. It didn’t take her long to win over the people of Brazoria.

Born in 1846 in Vienna, Austria, Sofie was the daughter of a world-renowned surgeon. At the age of 14, she married Dr. August Herzog, a prominent young physician. In the ensuing years, she gave birth to 15 children, including three sets of twins, but eight died in infancy. In the 1870s the family made the arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean and settled on the East Coast. Sofie had decided to study medicine but soon realized that American medical schools did not treat female students equally, and so she returned to Europe for her schooling. Back in the States with her medical degree, she opened an office in New Jersey and practiced there for several years. In the mid-1890s, her husband now dead and her children grown, Sofie grew restless. But a visit to her youngest daughter, who had married and moved to Brazoria, ignited Sofie’s spirit of adventure. Traveling 1,700 miles to the rugged Texas frontier, she moved in with her daughter and son-in-law, Texas merchant Randolph Prell, and began to practice medicine in the pioneer town on the Brazos River. Here she would become fondly known as Dr. Sofie.

A public shouting match one day between Dr. Sofie and her son-in-law left tongues wagging in Brazoria, as the doctor’s peculiar behavior often did. Prell had returned home to find a man covered with red spots undergoing treatment for smallpox. He threw the man out and forbade Dr. Sofie to treat patients with contagious diseases in his home. Shortly thereafter, the doctor had a house of her own built, with two rooms for seeing patients and a third to be used as her residence.

South Texas had more than its share of cutthroats and gunslingers in the 19th century, and Dr. Sofie spent a good portion of her time removing lead slugs from wounded desperadoes. When she had collected 24, she had a jeweler make them into a “lucky” necklace with a gold link between each bullet.

With her reputation as an eccentric firmly established, the renegade doctor fueled the fire by collecting specimens, preserving them in alcohol, and displaying them on shelves in her office. One was reported to have been a human fetus with two heads and three arms, a tragic oddity that a good number of patients found startling to say the least. Dr. Sofie was also intrigued by the native Texas wildlife, decorating her practice with stuffed mammals and reptiles and carrying a purse fashioned from a small alligator that still had its feet and claws attached. Undaunted, she even skinned rattlesnakes and mounted the preserved skins on pieces of red satin in her office. But like many grandmothers, she also knitted, crocheted, and bragged about her grandchildren.

When the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railroad laid track near Brazoria in 1905, Dr. Sofie’s patient load skyrocketed. She was often seen galloping through the night to attend injured railroad employees. Her fine medical skills and reassuring manner quickly made her a favorite among the railroad men. In 1906, the railroad announced that it wanted to hire a chief surgeon, and the application submitted by “Dr. Herzog” was accompanied by such glowing recommendations that she got the job. After hiring her, Eastern railroad officials were horrified to discover that Dr. Herzog was actually a woman. They sent a telegram to the doctor asking her to resign. “I’ll keep this job as long as I give satisfaction,” Dr. Sofie replied. “If I fail, then you can free me.”

According to retired Brazoria librarian and Dr. Sofie Herzog scholar Dortha Pekar, Dr. Sofie celebrated 50 years as a physician on May 4, 1921, by treating the entire town to free medical care. She continued to serve as the railroad’s chief surgeon until her resignation a few months before her death in 1925, racing over the tracks to reach her patients in a steam engine, boxcar, or occasionally aboard a handcar, where she was forced to hold on to her hat as the tiny, wheeled platform flew along the tracks, its handle pumped up and down by a gandy dancer.

This Renaissance woman also ran her own pharmacy and invested in real estate. She financed the building of a hotel and contributed money to complete an Episcopal church in Brazoria. In her 60s, her spirit undiminished, Dr. Sofie married again. The bridegroom was Col. Marion Huntington, a descendant of Stephen F. Austin’s original Old Three Hundred. She moved to her husband’s plantation several miles out of town and solved the problem of her newfound commute by buying one of the first Ford runabouts in the area and driving it to her office each day for another decade.

Dr. Sofie Herzog made a name for herself as a female medical expert when the practice of medicine was a man’s world. She attended and spoke at medical conventions, treated patients from all walks of life, delivered babies of African-American families living along the Brazos River, and provided endless fodder for Brazoria’s disapproving social elite. When death ended Dr. Sofie’s medical career and she was laid to rest wearing her lucky bullet necklace, one of her granddaughters moved into her house. But first, she removed Dr. Sofie’s collection of preserved specimens and buried them under a tree.

 

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