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Dr. Sofie Herzog

Pioneer physician won folks over by doing things her way

“You may write something about me if you will,” said the lady physician to a reporter at the 1915 Texas State Medical Association convention. “I don’t believe in this humbuggery of saying that doctors don’t want their names in the paper.”

While news about Dr. Sofie Herzog made the area papers from time to time, she was probably more likely to be discussed by Brazoria’s wagging tongues.

It was shocking enough for a woman to expound freely on such explicit anatomical detail as is required of the medical profession. And though she soon won Brazoria’s residents over as a skilled and caring physician, “Dr. Sofie” perplexed locals further by riding a horse astride and wearing a divided skirt instead of using the customary sidesaddle. And her big, broad-brimmed hat struck many as a man’s hat.

Then there was the personal museum in her office, filled with medical specimens and stuffed birds and reptiles. Rattlesnake skins were hung on red satin ribbons after they were skinned by Dr. Sofie herself.

Born Sofie Dalia in Vienna, Austria, in 1846, she married Dr. Moritz Herzog at about age 14; most historical accounts state his first name as August, but Dortha Pekar, a Brazoria County historian who portrays Dr. Sofie in monologue, found the name Moritz (and Moriz) Herzog on five of his children’s marriage licenses.

The couple had 15 children, including three sets of twins; eight of their children died in infancy.

In 1886, the Herzogs immigrated to New York City, where Moritz had accepted a position with the United States Naval Hospital. In time, Sofie, who according to some historical sources received medical training before coming to America, also felt the call to heal. She practiced medicine in Hoboken, New Jersey, for several years and then graduated from the Eclectic Medical College of the City of New York in 1894.

After her husband’s death around 1895, Dr. Sofie moved to Brazoria, southwest of Galveston, where her youngest daughter, Elfriede, lived with her husband, Randolph Prell. For a time, Dr. Sofie stayed with her daughter and son-in-law and practiced medicine in their home. But after Randolph objected to the presence of a smallpox patient, whom Dr. Sofie was treating with an experimental ointment she had concocted herself, she built her own residence and medical office on Brazoria’s Market Street. The structure included an operating room for her surgical practice and a drugstore where she mixed her own medicines—and, of course, her museum of medical specimens, animal skins and wild critters stuffed and posed just as they had looked in life.

When she expressed curiosity about alligators, an acquaintance delivered a 7-footer to her office. The still-alive beast kept Dr. Sofie awake all night until she had it added to her collection of skins (it’s not clear who finally killed it). And her fashionable alligator handbag made from a smaller reptile featured two of its legs, with feet and claws attached.

Though located in southeast Texas, Brazoria County remained infested with Wild West characters, and Dr. Sofie perfected the art of removing bullets from folks who found themselves on the wrong end of a six-shooter. She grew fond of boasting that she had never lost a patient after removing a bullet and even had a lucky-charm necklace made from 24 retrieved slugs of lead.

The doctor invested in Brazoria County real estate, building a hotel—the Southern, which became the social center of Brazoria—and an Episcopalian church that served the town until a hurricane destroyed it in 1932.

Around the turn of the century, when Uriah Lott’s St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway was laying tracks through Dr. Sofie’s stretch of the coastal plains, she often was called to construction sites to treat injured or ill railroad workers. She rode any transportation available, including train engines and boxcars. Soon, railway officials offered her the post of chief surgeon—but when Eastern railroad officials learned that she was a woman, they asked her to resign.

“I’ll keep this job as long as I give satisfaction,” she replied. “If I fail, then you can free me.” She remained on the job until just a few months before she died, telling reporters that she was “the only woman surgeon for a railroad in the world.”

After Dr. Sofie’s death in 1925 at the age of 79, part of her museum collection went to John Sealy Hospital in Galveston; her alligator bag can be seen upon request in the Brazoria County Historical Museum in Angleton. But don’t look for the 24-bullet necklace. Dr. Sofie wore that good-luck piece to the world beyond.

Austinite Gene Fowler is the author of Mavericks—A Gallery of Texas Characters, published by University of Texas Press.