Famous Dentists: John Henry “Doc” Holliday

Doc HollidayOur next spotlight in the Famous Dentists series is the Wild West gunfighter John Henry “Doc” Holliday. Before he became famous for dueling, Doc Holliday was a dentist, which is where he got his nickname.

Find out what is fact and what is fiction for this legendary man and why his dentistry career is not what he is best remembered for.

Early Life

John Henry was born August 14, 1851 in Griffin, Georgia. As a 19-year-old, Holliday began dental school in Philadelphia, where he graduated two years later. Unfortunately, his career was unsteady due to coughing caused by tuberculosis.

In 1873, Doc moved to Texas to open a dentist office, but quickly realized that he could make more money through gambling, until he was arrested for illegal gambling, forcing him to move to Denver, and later Dakota.

The whole time Holliday continued to gamble, practice dentistry, and get into altercations. He became friends with famous Western hero Wyatt Earp and travelled around gambling. The pair got into a few barroom brawls, and Doc even received a nearly fatal gunshot wound.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Doc Holliday continued to move westward in the early 1880s, out of civilized areas and into cities where he could still make a dis-honest living. In Tombstone, Arizona Territory, he got involved in a dispute between the Earp family and the outlaw Cowboys, who faced off in what is now known as The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Three Cowboys died in the fight while the other two fled, and Doc was minorly wounded. The gunfight led to more violence that quickly escalated into the murder of Wyatt’s brother, Virgil Earp.

Wyatt became a U.S. Marshall and deputized his followers, including Doc, as they tracked down the killers. They eventually got revenge, although the legality is questionable.

Holliday died on November 8, 1887 at 36 years of age from health complications, likely caused by excessive drinking and his tuberculosis.

Legend Larger Than the Man

Doc Holliday was not really the fearless gunfighter that he is portrayed as in popular culture; he was really a tragic case. For all his legend, he actually closer resembled a drunk and a criminal.

It is intriguing to imagine what would have happened had he not contracted tuberculosis at a young age; he likely would have stuck with dentistry rather than being forced to earn a living by gambling.

In the end, maybe the words of his friend Wyatt Earp best sum up his life:

“Doc was a dentist, not a lawman or an assassin, whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long lean ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun that I ever knew.”