Becoming 'Doc'

CDV of John Henry Holliday DDS Front and Back Signed

The famous dental school CDV of Doc Holliday. Written on the back is "J H Holliday D.D.S. Valdosta, Georgia," possibly in Doc's own hand. The item was recently sold for $50,000 in January 2019 from the collection of the late Robert G. McCubbin, an Old West photograph, document, and ephemera collector.


One of the most surprising trends when studying Doc’s timeline is the number of attempts he made to continue practicing dentistry throughout his short life. Despite constantly running from trouble, fleeing from city to city, anytime that Doc paused in one location momentarily, he offered his dental services to the town’s residents. This seems to imply that returning to his studied profession of dentistry was an attempt at normalcy – something he deeply desired. If it were not for his tuberculosis diagnosis in his early 20’s, perhaps Doc would have found continued success as a dentist, and his name would be found amongst famous accomplished dentists, instead of Wild West gunfighters. 

Explore the many cities that Doc practiced dentistry in, whether it was short-lived or for a longer period. Consider the factors that influenced him to establish in each town, in addition to those that forced him out.

Also, be sure to visit our StoryMap Timeline to travel across the nation, following Doc’s movements through time and space.

St. Louis

PLANTERS HOUSE - NORTHWEST CORNER FOURTH AND CHESTNUT STREETS, TO PINE STREET

Old Planters House Hotel by Richard H Fuhrmann at the Missouri Historical Society


As previously mentioned, when Doc graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in March of 1872, he was only 20 years old, making him ineligible for a Georgia dentist’s license. To pass the time until his birthday, Doc may have collaborated that spring with a fellow Pennsylvania College graduate in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Doc’s longtime girlfriend, Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings (better known as ‘Big Nose Kate’), later told the story of how she and Doc met in St. Louis while he was practicing dentistry on Fourth Street, near the old Planter's Hotel.

For years, her tale was discounted, until scholar and author, Victoria Wilcox, found evidence that Doc’s classmate, Auguste Jameson Fuches, was from St. Louis and did indeed live on Fourth Street, near the hotel. This information seems to support Kate’s claims, especially because Doc and Fuches appeared to be good friends. They even wrote their final college dissertations on the very same topic.

Atlanta

Dr Arthur C Ford

Dr. Arthur C. Ford, who hired Doc in 1872 to work in his dental office at the corner of Whitehall and Alabama streets over W. P. Chisolm's Confetionery in Atlanta, Georgia. Image from the Georgia Dental Society


Following his short stint in St. Louis, Doc accepted an invitation from his Uncle John to stay at his home in Atlanta. Dr. John wanted to offer Doc a chance to establish himself in his new career, and luckily for Doc, the Holliday household had another occupant, Samuel Hape, D.D.S., who offered Doc a great lead. Though not a practicing dentist at the time, Dr. Hape owned a company which manufactured and supplied gold foil for dentists. His brother, Albert, was also a dentist and had previously worked in town with Dr. Arthur C. Ford.

Dr. Ford was a prestigious local dentist, who also served as chairman of the Georgia State Dental Society. In order to attend the various meetings of the society and related organizations, Dr. Ford was seeking an associate to attend to his patients while he was away. With his referral from Dr. Hape, Doc secured an interview. Dr. Ford hired Doc, and on Friday, July 26, 1872, he published the following notice in the Atlanta Constitution:

“I HEREBY inform my patients that I leave to attend the Sessions of the Southern Dental Association in Richmond, Virginia this evening, and will be absent until about the middle of August, during which time Dr. Jno. [sic] H. Holliday will fill my place in my office.

      Arthur C. Ford DDS,

           Office 26 Whitehall Street.”

Even after returning from his initial convention in August, Dr. Ford invited Doc to continue working in his office. He knew that he’d have events he’d need to attend, and Doc was more than willing to continue working with such an esteemed dentist. Some sources contend that Doc continued working with Dr. Ford in Atlanta until an unwelcome diagnosis forced him further west in 1873, but others believe he returned to his town of birth, Griffin, temporarily upon receiving his inheritance.

Griffin

On August 14, 1872, Doc turned 21 years of age, finally coming into his inheritance. The following month, his father transferred a piece of property located on the southwest corner of Solomon Street and State Alley, in his hometown of Griffin, Georgia, into his name. Some sources think that he opened his own dental office in this building, which is thought to have been originally owned by Doc's grandfather. Regardless, Doc sold the two-story building in January of 1873 for eighteen hundred dollars. Now, as shown above, the building is the site of Doc Holliday's Saloon, but the doorway to his potential former practice can still be seen on the side of the building.

An Unwelcome Diagnosis

In the winter of 1872 and beginning of 1873, Doc began rapidly losing weight. At first, he believed it was due to his active schedule treating patients, but when he developed a distressing cough about 6 months later, he decided to visit his Uncle John. Although no longer a practicing doctor, Dr. John continued studying medicine and staying abreast of the latest medical news. Using a stethoscope and bronchoscope, he diagnosed Doc with pulmonary tuberculosis, the same disease that presumably took the life of his mother.

His uncle suggested a warmer, dry climate, in addition to a healthy diet and prolonged rest. This recommendation fit with how doctors treated tuberculosis at the time. Doc received his diagnosis in 1873, but it wasn’t until 1882 that the bacteria that causes tuberculosis was discovered. Right before the turn of the century, in 1899, the droplet theory of infection was developed, prompting the use of masks to cover the mouth and prevent microbes from passing from one airway to another. Before these discoveries, in the early and mid-1800’s, sanatorium doctors valued open-air treatments, with an emphasis on the patients being outdoors in the clean air, in addition to eating a rich diet to supplement their weakened bodies.

Since his mother’s passing from the disease in 1866, there was a growing belief among doctors that the disease’s progression could be halted with this regimen of rest, diet, and fresh air. Doc’s family hoped that his diagnosis at the young age of 22 years old would not be the cause of an early death. And because of that, they worked together to find him a new place to continue his career.

That September, with a letter of recommendation from Atlanta dentist Dr. Ford, Doc left for Dallas to partner with one of Dr. Ford's associates, Dr. Seegar. Leaving the comfort of his family was difficult for Doc, especially because he had recently agreed to serve as preceptor for his cousin, Robert, who was following in his footsteps to become a dentist. Robert was admitted to the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery for the term beginning in October 1873, and Doc had been training him in the office during the months prior. In addition to leaving home without a known return date, Doc was surely anxious to be starting his battle against the same disease he watched steal his mother’s life from her.

1874 Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery Matriculants - John H Holliday listed as preceptor to Robert A Holliday

Robert A. Holliday (Doc's cousin) listed along with Dr. J.H. Holliday as his preceptorfor the 18th Annual Session, 1873-1874, of the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery.

Dallas

In September of 1873, Doc arrived in Dallas, Texas to fulfill his arrangement assisting Dr. John A. Seegar. Dr. Seegar had been practicing dentistry since 1869, but was struggling to keep up with an expanded clientele. The two partners opened a practice on Elm Street, becoming award-winning dentists. Exhibits Doc prepared for dental school were entered at the Dallas County Fair, where he and his partner took all three awards - "best set of teeth in gold","the best in Vulcanized rubber", and "the best set of artificial teeth and dental ware."

Newspaper clipping from the Dallas Daily Herald - Dr. Holliday and Segar win fair prizes for dental work

Doc and his partner Dr. Segar win multiple prizes for artifical teeth at a fair, as found in The Dallas Daily Herald, October 4, 1873.

During his time in Dallas, Doc was also introduced to the vibrant nightlife and saloons. He began gambling and drinking heavily, building an undesirable reputation, which prompted Dr. Seegar to end their partnership. On March 2, 1874, a Dallas newspaper reported that the two dentists went their separate ways. Doc opened his own practice in an office over a bank in town, but it was short-lived. The coughing spells brought on by his tuberculosis made his patients uneasy, forcing Doc to find another way to make a living.

Doc became a gambler and faro game player in saloons throughout Dallas, but this lifestyle gained him a lot of enemies, and garnered attention from the law. On May 12, 1874, Doc was summoned (along with 12 other gamblers) for not complying with the city’s gaming codes. On May 22, 1874, Doc appeared in court for the hearing, where he was handed a large bond for the offense of betting at a keno bank. Shortly thereafter, Doc decided to leave Dallas in search of a town with new opportunities.

Ft. Griffin

From late 1877 until spring of 1878, Doc stayed in Ft. Griffin, Texas. Although Doc spent his evenings at the local saloons, playing poker and faro, Kate claimed that Doc also practiced dentistry in his hotel room during the day. By the time Doc reached Ft. Griffin, it is said that his previous confrontations across the West had earned him the nickname, “the Deadly Dentist.”

Dodge City

In the spring of 1878, Doc secured a room at the Dodge House for he and Kate in Dodge City, Kansas. The hotel was considered the finest in the city and included a billiard parlor, which allowed Doc to both practice dentistry and gamble, all in one location. Capitalizing on the growing popularity of the town, Doc took out an ad in the Dodge City Times offering his services:

"DENTISTRY: J. 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."


Sadly, Doc’s health began deteriorating significantly while in Dodge City, forcing him to abandon both his successful dental and gambling career for a better climate. Las Vegas in the New Mexico Territory was a well-known refuge for those suffering with tuberculosis, and Doc headed there to find out why.

Las Vegas

Doc and Kate arrived in Las Vegas just a few days before Christmas of 1878. Wealthy individuals suffering from tuberculosis flocked to the town's plentiful hot springs, hoping to find some relief. With so many individuals diagnosed with tuberculosis living in the town, the residents formed the Lungers Club. In addition to joining his fellow "lungers," Doc set up a new dental practice near the town's plaza, although it was short-lived. The region experiences an extremely cold winter that year, and a new bill prohibiting gambling passes. In March of 1879, Doc was indicted for keeping a gaming table. He paid a fine and decided to leave Las Vegas.

Prescott

From the fall of 1879 until the spring of 1880, Doc stayed in Prescott, Arizona. Although he was predominantly enjoying his success at the gaming tables in town, he listed his profession in the June 1880 census as “Dentist.” Whether he was actually continuing to treat patients from time to time, or because he could not legally list his occupation as “Gambler,” the decision shows that Doc took pride in his studied career, and perhaps wanted to be remembered for his service to the community as such.

Excerpt from 1880 Census - J H Holliday - Dentist - Prescott Arizona

June 1880 U.S. Census for Prescott, Arizona, showing Doc's occupation as "Dentist" and residing at 52 Montgomery Street with a Richard Elliot, miner, and John Gosper, miner and stock raiser.

Tombstone

By the summer of 1880, Doc received word from Wyatt Earp that Tombstone, Arizona was very lively and there were no dentists in town, providing an opportunity for him to be the first. Although there is no evidence that Doc did actually practice dentistry while in Tombstone, what’s important to note is that Wyatt knew Doc was still attempting to do so.

Glenwood Springs

By 1887, Doc’s tuberculosis had advanced considerably. To combat the effects of his ailment, Doc moved to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, to visit the sulfur springs, which were thought to relieve tuberculosis symptoms. While there, he attempted to support himself by practicing dentistry once more, but sadly, it was not long before his violent coughing spells ruined this final attempt at normalcy.