Ferdinand Ludwig von Herff, physician, son of Christian von Herff and Eleanora von Meusebach, was born at Darmstadt, Germany, on November 29, 1820. He came from an aristocratic family, and his father was chief justice of the Hessian Supreme Court. While attending the University of Bonn, Herff lived with his uncle, the president of the university, and was able to meet many famous people. Studying under influential medical scientists and learning avant garde concepts and techniques, he began his medical education at Berlin and finished in 1843 at Giessen. While a surgeon in the Hessian Army (1843–47) he developed ingenious techniques in plastic surgery and tuberculosis treatment.
Because of the political environment in Germany at this time, many Germans were emigrating, especially to America. In 1847 Herff helped organize a group composed mainly of university-educated professionals, Die Vierziger (the Forty), to found an idealistic commune in Texas. The commune was named Bettina and was located on the Llano River near what is now Castell. The enthusiastic settlers were ill prepared to cope with stern frontier realities, however, and within eighteen months the commune failed. Herff returned to Germany convinced that Texas would be his ultimate home. He married Mathilde Kungel Hoeffer in 1849. He rejoined the military, and his successes in treating battle casualties were attributed to his dexterity and his scrupulous attention to cleanliness (prior to antisepsis), which resulted in low infection rates. He returned to Texas, became a citizen, and dropped the nobility title "von" from his name. He and his wife settled briefly in New Braunfels, then moved in 1850 to San Antonio, where Herff began one of the most prolonged careers in Texas medicine. There was no lack of patients, but most were indigent, and Herff's philosophy that professional satisfaction was its own reward led to family hardships. Of necessity surgery was performed in homes, hotels, and even in open-air locations. His reputation grew as a result of remarkable medical feats, including the removal of two large bladder stones from a Texas Ranger, an operation which was Herff's first use of chloroform and was witnessed by a crowd of onlookers which included Ranger William A. A. (Big Foot) Wallace; cataract removal resulting in the restoration of eyesight; the correction of a depressed skull fracture to alleviate traumatic epilepsy; and expert arrow removal (one victim traveled over 100 miles to obtain lifesaving relief). He also performed gastrostomy on a young person who had ingested lye, and at age eighty-four under primitive ranch conditions he operated on his daughter-in-law, who had an ectopic pregnancy.
Herff worked tirelessly to achieve high standards of medical practice. He helped organize the Bexar County Medical Society, the West Texas Medical Association, the Texas Medical and Surgical Record, and the Texas Medical Association and served on the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners. He was also instrumental in the establishment of San Antonio's first hospital. Herff shunned encomiums, but he received many honors, including recognition from the University of Giessen and St. Louis College of Physicians and Surgeons. He died in San Antonio on May 18, 1912.