An Impressive Education

Being born into Southern aristocracy allowed Doc the opportunity to receive a good education, which was incredibly important due to the early speech impediment he exhibited, caused by his congenital defect and consequent surgery. Even with early cleft repair surgery, many children exhibit something called “cleft palate speech.” This syndrome is characterized by atypical consonant productions, abnormal nasal resonance, abnormal nasal airflow, altered laryngeal voice quality, and nasal or facial grimaces.

Alice Holliday wanted to shield her son from potentially hurtful comments made by others, and ensure that he would be ready for formal schooling when the time came. This meant that Doc spent most of his time as a toddler in speech therapy. To achieve the desired results, Alice created a picture book with stimulating scenes and objects, all of which were difficult for someone with a cleft-palate speech impediment to pronounce. The entire family, and even members of their church, took turns sitting with Doc, working with him on his communication.

The lessons were overall successful in improving Doc’s speaking abilities, although future sources noted the “funny” way in which he spoke. This may be attributed to another lesson Alice imparted to her son - Southern etiquette and manners. In addition to refining Doc’s speaking and dialect, the lessons he received as a toddler instilled a desire in Doc to learn.

Valdosta Institute

The first formal schooling Doc received was at the Valdosta Institute in Valdosta, Georgia, where he was one of the first students. Samuel McWhir Varnedoe founded the institution after purchasing Mason's Hall in 1865 and adding two additional wings. Varnedoe and his daughters, Matilda and Sallie Lou, were instructors at the school.

The Institute was a private school that provided strong classical education in grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, history, and languages, principally Latin, considerable French, and some Greek. Movie aficionados may recall Doc’s proficiency of Latin, as seen in the movie Tombstone. We can imagine that Doc’s educational background was a memorable trait in the midst of boomtowns and cities run by outlaws.

Check out this video to see the infamous Tombstone conversation between Doc and Johnny translated from Latin to English.

Thanks to the robust focus on academics and speech provided during his childhood, Doc was able to meet the rigorous demands of the private Valdosta Institute. Doc went on to graduate from the school, seemingly doing quite well, as he was later admitted to the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery when he was only eighteen years old.

The Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery

Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery 1872

Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, founded in 1856. Image from The Dental Times, 1872.

As previously noted, many factors influenced Doc’s decision to attend dental school at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia. Its distance away from trouble back home and the tense Reconstruction of the south was a desirable trait to Doc and his family. In 1870, he paid the five-dollar enrollment fee and the one-hundred-dollar tuition in order to register for the fifteenth annual session. In September of that year, at age 19, Doc made the long trip, via train and ship, to begin his dental education.

The program required five months of classroom lectures, which Doc attended twice daily, Monday through Friday.  At nine o'clock each morning, he attended a two-hour lecture and demonstration, followed by a second two-hour lecture and demonstration, beginning at one o'clock each afternoon. These lectures, and his subsequent course work, focused on many subjects including: chemistry, mechanical dentistry and metallurgy, dental pathology and therapeutics, dental histology and operative dentistry, physiology and microscopic anatomy, and anatomy and surgery. On Saturdays, Doc participated in clinical operations. During his first year's course of instruction he operated on approximately 39 patients, filling about 32 teeth, extracting an additional 38 teeth, and performing about a dozen other operations. One patient, a six-year-old girl, received a crown of pure swaged gold, which Doc attached to the child's diseased molar with red copper cement. It is said that the crown remained intact until she died at the age of 102 in 1967.

During the summer breaks between his two years at college, as required by the dental program, Doc studied under Valdosta dentist Dr. Lucian Frederick Frink, a fellow veteran and friend of his father’s. This allowed Doc to return home, while still gaining the necessary skills for his chosen career, including extracting and filling teeth for Dr. Frink’s patients. During this time, he was even able to perform work on a former Valdosta Institute classmate, Corinthia Morgan, as noted in office records.

In October 1871, Doc again traveled to Philadelphia to resume his studies. After attending lectures for an additional 22 weeks, Doc needed to complete the remaining requirements of the program, including preparing a thesis on “Diseases of the Teeth,” treating a patient in need of all the regular dental operations, and preparing and presenting an artificial denture. After passing an examination by the faculty, he was recommended for graduation to the Board of Trustees. On March 1, 1872, Doc graduated near the top of his class from The Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery with the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery.

Despite excelling in his studies, Doc was only 20 years old at the time, so he couldn't get his diploma for official authorization as a dentist for another year, making him ineligible for a Georgia dentist's license.

John Henry Holliday Graduation Photo 1872

One of only two confirmed adult photos of Doc, as authenticated by the Holliday family. This photo is believed to have been taken for his graduation from dental school at age 20.

Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery Graduation Announcement in V9 of Dental Times, 1872

The March 1, 1872 graduation announcement from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery as found in the Dental Times Vol. 9. His name is listed as the tenth recipient, along with his state of residency and thesis focus, Diseases of the Teeth.

Dentistry in the late 1800s

In order to appreciate Doc’s experience studying at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery from 1870-1872, and his subsequent future career within the field, it is imperative to explore what American dentistry was like during that time. At the 1840 formal opening of the world’s first dental college, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, Dr. Chapin A. Harris addressed the profession’s most pressing flaw – lack of educational training. He felt that the profession was full of individuals who never learned the basic fundamental skills, and he called for a reformation in which the difference between a competent and incompetent dentist was apparent. This could only be achieved through refined education.

Prior to this reformation, few dental practitioners had medical education, training, or experience. There was a collection of “mechanical dentists” who used their experience working with metals and jewelry as a means to transition into dentistry, but most dental professionals gained their positions through an apprenticeship or preceptorship. This was no longer going to be the case, as the scientific foundation for dentistry was being recognized. With the input of the American Dental Association, formed in 1859, and an increased focus on research, great new advances in equipment, materials, and techniques came about very quickly, but a trip to the dentist back then would still be much different than it is today.

Dentistry was a painful procedure during Doc’s time – imagine having your teeth removed without Novocain or the benefit of postoperative pain killers. Despite nitrous oxide and ether anesthesia being demonstrated as a means of sedation in 1840, these methods were often reserved for more serious oral surgeries, not every day tooth extractions. Additionally, most middle-class individuals could not afford anything other than the bare minimum during a trip to the dentist. Other solutions, including chloroform and liquid cocaine injected into the jaw, were also tried over time, but these were unreliable and often dangerous approaches. The methods for tooth removal were also quite different, and infinitely more excruciating, as pliers, forceps, or “tooth keys” were typically used to pull teeth. With tooth keys, the claw opening was placed over the top of the decaying tooth and the long metal rod was placed against its root. The “key” was then turned, hopefully popping the tooth out of the socket. In the 1870’s, when Doc attended dental school, dentists were more likely to extract teeth than to attempt to restore or repair them. And without modern pain relief, most people wanted their troublesome teeth pulled, rather than continue to deal with the pain.

Late 1800s, early 1900s tooth extraction

A horrifying tooth extraction from the late 1800s or early 1900s. The patient had to have his head restrained with a towel to stop him from moving too much.

This led to a good business in dentures, which were historically made of many different materials including wood, porcelain, animal bone, ivory, gold, and sometimes real human teeth. In 1864, vulcanized rubber was introduced as a substitute for dentures, allowing dentists to supply dentures at a lower cost. The introduction of a foot-treadle drill in 1871 meant that dentists could remove cavities instead of extracting the whole tooth, but the drills were still quite slow and required a lot of manual operation for little energy output. There was also no preventive dentistry at the time, as dentists did not yet know of the disease-producing possibilities of mouth bacteria. Although toothbrushes and toothpaste existed, the latter being mass-produced in 1873 by Colgate, few people used them regularly.

In order to graduate from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in 1872, Doc had to successfully prepare and present a thesis. For his thesis, he focused on “Diseases of the Teeth.” This is an interesting topic considering the field was still unaware of the connection between bacteria in the mouth and the development of disease, but there were many diseases of the teeth that prominent dentists felt capable of diagnosing. These diseases would be learned by dental students by reading prominent publications on the subject, such as Samuel Sheldon Fitch’s A system of dental surgery: in three parts, published in 1829. Some examples with descriptions, as reported by Fitch, are listed below:

  • Caries – decay of some part of the substance of the tooth
  • Exostosis of the Fangs – a growth or deposition of bone upon them, causing them to be larger and to press against the internal sides of the socket, causing pain and inevitable tooth loss
  • Necrosis – the death of some part of the fang of a tooth
  • Spina Ventosa – a disease of the membrane lining the internal part of the fang, accompanied with a discharge of the matter
  • Removal of the enamel by the denuding process
  • Fractures of the teeth
  • Wearing down of the teeth in mastication
  • Diseases of the gums and soft parts – such as scurvy of the gums, cancer, and a preternatural growth of the gums, with related tumors