Ask Dr. J
Doc Holliday: Gambler, Gunslinger, and Dentist
From the Famous Dentists Series
John Henry “Doc” Holliday is best known as one of the deadliest gunfighters in the history of the American West, but before that he was a dentist in Atlanta.
Holliday was born in Georgia in 1852. Holliday’s mother died from tuberculosis when he was 15 years old, the same disease that would eventually claim his life at age 36. As a young boy, he was given a classical education. By marriage, his cousin was Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With The Wind.
He received his dental degree in Philadelphia before the age of 21. He practiced in St. Louis, Missouri as an assistant for a short while before moving back to Atlanta where his family was. Once there, he began practicing as a dentist on his own. It was during this time that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Whether he caught it from his mother or a dental patient (precautions against the spread of disease weren’t common back then) is unknown. Rather than accept the diagnosis of having only a few months to live, Holliday did what many of that era did: he decided to move to the dry southwest part of the country.
That’s when his life changed.
In 1873, Holliday moved to Dallas, Texas and set up a dental practice. Patients were afraid to go to his office, however, because of his ongoing cough and health issue, and it wasn’t long before Holliday realized that gambling was more profitable than his dental practice ever would be. From there on, he began having run-ins with the law, his reputation as a fearsome gunfighter and gambler growing. He moved around Texas, up to Wyoming, to South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, and eventually, back to Texas. Along the way he met Wyatt Earp, and eventually found his way to fame in history with the Earp brothers in the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory.
Through all of his gambling and gunfighting, though, Holliday would still attempt to practice as a dentist off and on. Perhaps if he’d never contracted tuberculosis, his life would have been much different; we might never have heard of his name as we do today. On November 8, 1887, Holliday died in Colorado from tuberculosis.