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Figures in Dentistry: Doc Holliday
Article by Michael C. DiTolla, DDS, FAGD
and Megan Strong
Considering the incredible fear surrounding
extractions, root canals and dental work in general, being known as "history's most
fearsome dentist" wouldn't exactly
bode well for one's private practice. You
get the feeling that his reviews on Yelp
would have been less than stellar, and that
word-of-mouth referrals would be few and far
between. As a dentist in a time when any dental procedure seemed like something out of a nightmare, Dr. John Henry "Doc" Holliday was a man unafraid of
blood, guts and violence. Doc spent his short but historically
eventful life roaming the dusty trail in search of danger, fortune and caries.
Born in Georgia to a wealthy family, Doc came into this world on Aug. 14, 1851. After losing both his mother and
adopted brother to tuberculosis,
Doc went on to attend the
Pennsylvania College of Dental
Surgery, which his cousin, Robert
Holliday, founded. He graduated in 1872
with a thesis titled "Diseases of the Teeth."
The next time you feel like complaining about how difficult state boards were, consider yourself
lucky that you didn't have to write a thesis. Or even read a thesis, for that matter.
Shortly after graduating with a dental degree, Doc began
work as a dentist in the office of Dr. Arthur C. Ford in
Atlanta, Ga. It wasn't long after starting his practice that
he came down with tuberculosis, the same disease that
claimed his mother and brother. Thinking the drier climate
of the Wild, Wild West would be better for his health, he
headed to the other side of the country.
Doc moved to Dallas, Texas, and quickly picked up his
instruments again as he started work with Dr. John A.
Seeger. However, his dental career came to a screeching
halt as the coughing spells from his disease began to scare
patients away. Even though universal precautions wouldn't
be adopted for another 100 years or so, these patients had
the good sense not to let someone with active tuberculosis
cough into their open mouth. Doc Holliday was forced to
find another way to earn a living.
Naturally, he did what any dentist would do and turned
to a career in gambling. An intelligent man, Doc was a
successful gambler. Doc was made miserable, however, by
the knowledge of his impending death. Moody, a heavy
drinker and with no fear of death, he perhaps was more
prone to the life he came to lead.
Knowing he had to protect himself, given his dangerous
occupation and his disease-weakened body, he began to
train with a six-shooter. He quickly gained a reputation as
word of this nearly 6-foot-tall, gun-slingin' dentist spread
like wildfire. After his first accounted gunfight on Jan. 2,
1875, when Doc and a local saloonkeeper had a disagreement
that quickly turned violent, Doc became increasingly
fearless and dangerous. While several shots were fired, neither
Doc nor the saloonkeeper was struck and both men
were arrested, reported the Dallas Weekly Herald. Initially,
the locals thought the gunfight was amusing, until just a
few days later when Doc got into another disagreement,
this time killing a prominent citizen with two aimed bullets.
Fleeing Dallas, Doc moved to Jacksboro, Texas, where he
found a job dealing Faro, a notoriously crooked French
card game. He had become an expert shot, and quickly got
caught up in some more wild shenanigans. Even though he
left one man dead in the dust in a series of gunfights, no
legal action was taken against him. However, his luck turned
in the summer of 1876, when Doc killed a soldier, bringing
the U.S. government into the matter. A reward went out for
his capture, and the Army, Texas Rangers, U.S. Marshalls,
local lawmen and ordinary residents all pursued him.
To escape his inevitable demise if captured, Doc fled to
the Kansas Territory (present-day Colorado), making stops
along the way, where he left three more dead bodies in his
wake. From there, Doc engaged in numerous shoot-outs
and brawls, making friends and enemies along the way.
Most notably, he gained the friendship of Wyatt Earp and
his brothers, who were by his side fighting in the famous
gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz.
On Oct. 26, 1881, outlaw cowboys Billy Clanton, Tom
McLaury and his brother Frank McLaury battled it out
against the Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan) and
Doc Holliday. Cowboys Ike Clanton and Billy Clairborne ran
from the fight, but Billy Clanton and both McLaurys were
killed. Doc and Morgan and Virgil Earp were wounded. Only Wyatt Earp strolled out of it unharmed. Despite the
name, the gunfight actually went down six doors west of
the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral, as well as in the middle
of the street. Shots were fired, and bullets flew for about
30 seconds. Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the
Earp brothers and Doc, but they were all acquitted.
Doc was a nomadic creature, moving from one town to the
next, staying only long enough to win some money at the
table and put someone in their place. Dodging any serious
jail time, Doc continued his wild rampage engaging in
infamous showdowns and run-ins with the law, only to be
eventually taken down not by a gun, but by his tuberculosis.
When his health began to rapidly deteriorate in 1887, he
headed to Glenwood Springs, Colo., in hopes that the
natural hot springs there would improve his condition.
Unfortunately, he did not recover, and a few months later,
died at the age of 36. As the story goes, Doc always figured
he would be killed with his boots on, so when he found
himself barefoot on his deathbed, he asked for a glass of
whiskey and drank it down. Then, looking at his feet, said,
"This is funny," and died.