DARING DOCTOR SOFIE
By Cynthia Sterling
When word went out that a new doctor was coming to the frontier town of Brazosport, Texas in 1893, many people were shocked to learn the physician in question was a woman. Further investigation would have revealed that she was a widow with 14 grown children, and that she was coming to Texas all the way from New York. What kind of a woman was this?
Any who awaited Dr. Sofie Herzog’s arrival expecting to see some grandmotherly midwife must have been dumfounded at the attractive, energetic and highly skilled physician who confronted them. Only 45 years old, Dr. Herzog was a graduate of a Viennese university, where she had observed and trained with some of the most prestigious physicians of the day. She had managed a successful medical practice in New York, but she came to Texas for the same reason so many early settlers were drawn to the 28th state — adventure!
Physicians were still a rarity in that part of the country, and female or not, “Dr. Sofie,” as she came to be called, had little trouble establishing her medical practice. Many of her patients were the unlucky participants in brawls and shootouts. She quickly earned a reputation as a deft hand at removing bullets. And this European-trained lady doctor delighted in the compliments, so much so that she had a necklace made of the bullets she removed from patients, with a gold bead threaded between each slug. She accumulated a chain of 24 and wore this unique piece of jewelry often, claiming it brought her luck. Though the really lucky ones were the patients under Dr. Sofie’s care.
Born in Austria in 1848, Sofie’s father was an internationally known surgeon. She was only 14 when she married her husband, also a surgeon, and in 26 years of marriage they produced 14 children, including two sets of twins. Caring for her large family wasn’t enough for Sofie. She began studying medicine as a way to help her husband, and continued to assist him when he moved his practice to New York in 1886.
The Herzogs had been in the United States only a few years when Sofie was widowed. She continued to practice medicine in New York until 1893, when she decided to follow her youngest daughter, Elfriede Marie, to Texas.
Dr. Sofie lived with her daughter and son-in-law when she first arrived in Brazosport, and practiced out of their house. But after a while she wanted her own place. She had a three-room office built on Market Street, with living quarters in the back. Her son-in-law, Randolph Prell, worried about her living alone, and offered her a gun, but she refused the weapon.
Even without a gun, Sofie proved capable of looking after herself. Once when a visitor gave her trouble, and refused to leave her office, she grabbed up a poker from the fireplace and banished him.
“I want no odds because I’m a woman,” Dr. Sofie said, and indeed, it seems her sex was never a barrier to doing what she wanted. In 1905, when construction began on the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railroad, Sofie applied for the post of Chief Surgeon for the line.
She had already cared for many of the workers, who were often injured on the job or suffered from various illnesses. Her former patients praised her abilities and she had little trouble winning the job of railroad doctor.
But apparently, the railroad officials had no idea that their new company doctor was a woman. Upon learning this startling news, they promptly sent a letter asking Dr. Herzog to resign. “I’ll keep this job so long as I give satisfaction,” Sofie replied. The matter ended there. Dr. Sofie proved her abilities again and again, traveling by horseback, boxcar, engine or handcar to reach her patients along the railroad line. She held the post of Chief Surgeon for the railroad for 30 years.
Though she lived a rugged lifestyle, competing in a masculine world, Dr. Sofie never let it be forgotten that she was a woman. She remained close to her 14 children and loved to talk about her grandchildren. She enjoyed needlework and kept a workbasket in her office so that she could sew or crochet in the time between patients.
In addition to her own office, Dr. Sofie built two other buildings in town. She joined her daughter and son-in-law in the Episcopalian congregation, and financed the construction of a new church. She also built the Southern Hotel, a two and a half story edifice that provided lodging for visitors to the town and was the site of many local balls and meetings.
Ever the trendsetter, Dr. Sofie was one of the first in Brazosport to purchase an automobile. She took driving lessons from the salesman and soon began making her rounds behind the wheel of a Ford runabout.
By the time she died in July of 1925, the rough and tumble town of Brazosport had grown out of most of its wilder ways. Dr. Sofie had seen a lot of changes in her 32 years there, but she never forgot her early adventures. At her request, she was buried with her ‘good luck’ bullet necklace.
Cynthia Sterling writes historical romance for Berkley and Kensington.