THE BLOG
09/28/2010 12:39 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Doc Holliday: The Deadly Dentist

I definitely have an appreciation for the history of dentistry, as evidenced by my posts on the history of toothpaste and toothbrushes. And today, I'm going to take a look back at a famous dentist that you have likely heard of (but not for his dentistry).

The man I am referring to is William Henry Holliday, or better known as "Doc" Holliday. Yes, THE Doc Holliday, legendary Wild West gambler and gunfighter, friend of Wyatt Earp, and participant of the OK Corral Shootout. This very colorful, character started out his career as a dentist.

It's funny the twists and turns that life takes you on. Here I am, a NYC Cosmetic Dentist who blogs, and old Doc Holliday was a dentist who shoots. Now, the shooting part of his career is pretty well-known, so I'd like to use this post to touch on the part that not too many people know about -- his dentistry career.

Doc Holliday was born on August 14, 1851, in Griffin, Georgia. His early years were a mixture of turbulence and status. Holliday's father was a prominent man, serving two terms as mayor of Valdosta (where he moved the family), amongst other important posts. Thus, a young Holliday attended some of the finer schools in the area, and was fairly well-educated for the time period. The turbulence I previously mentioned was due to the fact that his mother died of Tuberculosis when he was 15, which must have been a major blow to him.

Nobody is quite certain exactly why he chose dentistry as a profession, but in looking at his early life, it's easy to make a few assumptions: his family status almost certainly dictated a profession and his cousin Robert founded the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery (which is where he went to dental school). This likely made for an easy decision. He graduated dental college in 1872, and went to work in the office of Dr. Arthur C. Ford in Atlanta.

At this point in his life, we get a clue as to what he would become -- he demonstrated a quick temper, and though was a gentleman, was eager to pull a gun. There is a reported incident from this time period of Holliday shooting over the heads of some people swimming in his favorite spot. Nobody was killed (or even hit), but it shows how hot tempered he could become.

Shortly after starting in Dr. Ford's office, Holliday was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. It's thought that perhaps he caught it from his mother, but the more likely cause was a coughing patient. This set in motion the rest of Holliday's life, as at that time, Tuberculosis (known as "consumption" back then) was generally a death sentence.

Rather than wait to die, Holliday was told that perhaps a dryer climate would prolong his life. In 1873, he headed west, to Dallas, Texas. Once there, he quickly found work with a Dr. John A. Seegar, and the two soon became partners.

It's here that his dentistry career takes a turn -- due to his Tuberculosis, Holliday was prone to extremely violent coughing fits. We can assume that these likely happened with patients in his chair, and even when he was performing delicate dental work. And as any dental patient can attest, having your dentist cough all over you is NOT how you want to spend your appointment. Business slowly declined for Holliday, and the partnership dissolved. Holliday had to find another means to support himself. This led to his becoming a professional gambler.

A few interesting tidbits need to be addressed at this point. The first is, why would someone like a dentist become involved in the dangerous occupation of gambling? I mean, booze, money,and guns are a terrible combination, and that's what you were neck deep in as a gambler. We have to assume that Holliday had a definite fatalist streak -- he was going to die shortly anyway, so, in essence, why NOT become a gambler, especially if you were skilled at it (as it turned out, Holliday was extremely proficient at gambling).

At this time in his life, it's hard to pry legend from fact. Some say he killed his first man at this time, others say no. But what we can take away from this period is he was involved in altercations, unfortunate incidents, or whatever else you want to call them, and, more times than one, had to leave town quickly, becoming known in 1876 as "The Deadly Dentist."

From here, legend of Holliday's travels is fairly well-known. He meets Wyatt Earp in Fort Griffin Texas, in 1877, he meets the love of his life in "Big Nose Kate" around this time, and eventually makes his way to Dodge City, Kansas in 1878. But it's in Dodge City that I want to make one final dental observation.

It would appear that Holliday was smitten enough with Kate that he agreed to try and live a normal life -- he gives up the gambling and such, and she gives up being a prostitute in the saloons. Holliday opens a dentistry office, and even takes out an ad in the paper that reads thus:

DENTISTRY

John H. Holliday, Dentist, very respectfully offers his professional services to the citizens of Dodge City and surrounding county during the summer. Office at Room No. 24 Dodge House. Where satisfaction is not given, money will be refunded.

This lasts for a few months, but Kate goes back to the saloons, and we can assume Holliday found himself at a gaming table soon after.

The next decade is well-documented (so I need not recount it), as Doc became one of the best known characters of the Old West. He survived numerous shootouts, finally succumbing to his disease on November 8, 1887.

I hope you enjoyed this time spent with one of dentistry's more famous characters.

Until next time, keep smiling.