Before 'Doc,' there was John Henry

John Henry Holliday - Age 1

John Henry 'Doc' Holliday, Age 1


When John Henry Holliday was born on August 14, 1851, in the small city of Griffin, Georgia, no one could have predicted the infamy that would eventually follow his name. His father, Henry Burroughs Holliday, was a veteran of the Indian and Mexican Wars, in addition to being the first court clerk in Spalding County and operating a business in town. His mother, Alice Jane McKey, was a talented musician, and eldest daughter and heir to a wealthy cotton planter. The family’s affluent status would benefit Doc later in life, and afford him the opportunity of a good education. 

John Henry was the couple's second biological child. Their first child, Martha Eleanora, was born eighteen months prior, but did not survive to her first birthday. There was one more adolescent in the Holliday household, a teenager named Francisco Hidalgo, an orphan of the Mexican War, brought to Georgia as a foster by Henry Holliday following his service.

Congenital Defect

John Stiles Holliday, MD, ca 1860

Doc Holliday's uncle, John Stiles Holliday, M.D., ca. 1860


When Henry and Alice Holliday welcomed their new baby boy in August of 1851, he presented with a serious birth defect: a cleft palate and partially cleft lip. This defect prevents the baby from sucking while being fed, so Doc's mother had to learn how to feed him with the aid of an eyedropper and small teaspoon. This ritual bonded mother to child, as Doc depended on Alice to ensure that he was receiving the proper nutrition despite the tedious nature of the process. Luckily, there was a doctor in the Holliday family that was both ready, and enthusiastic, to take on the task of performing surgery on the boy.

Doc's uncle, Dr. John Stiles Holliday, sought the assistance of Dr. Crawford Williamson Long, a man who was known for his use of ether as an anesthetic during surgery. When Doc was eight weeks old, Dr. Holliday and Dr. Long successfully repaired the cleft palate and lip, leaving Doc with only minor scarring and a slight speech impediment. For his part in saving their son, Henry and Alice named their child 'John' after his uncle. The strong relationship between Doc and his Uncle John was cemented that day, and Doc’s admiration for his uncle would remain influential throughout his life.

A Nation at War

Henry Burroughs Holliday, ca 1852

Doc's father, Major Henry Burroughs Holliday, ca. 1852


In 1864, Doc's father moved his family from Griffin, Georgia, to a 2,450-acre farm north of Valdosta, Georgia, near Bemiss in Lowndes County. Two years prior, in 1862, Henry received a medical discharge after serving as a Major of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Henry foresaw the imminent collapse of the Confederacy and hoped to keep his family safe from the path of the Union forces by moving to a more isolated area. The effects of the Civil War would greatly impact Doc’s childhood growing up in the south and become a major factor when considering his future education.

A Devastating Loss

Alice Jane McKey and John Henry Holliday circa 1852

Doc and his mother, Alice Jane McKey Holliday, ca. 1852


On September 16, 1866, Doc’s mother, Alice, died from "consumption." This antiquated term for "the wasting away of the body," typically referred to what we now call tuberculosis. Doc was only 15 years old when he lost his mother and watching her suffer prior to her eventual death devastated him. Three months after his mother's death, Doc’s father remarried to Rachel Martin. Rachel was only eight and one-half years older than her new stepson.

After his father's remarriage, the family moved into Valdosta, to a house owned by his new stepmother's family (located at 405 East Savannah Avenue.) The quick remarriage, and a lawsuit filed by the McKeys, caused scandal in the town. The McKeys' lawsuit was an attempt to stop Alice's significant inheritance from passing to Henry, who had already remarried shortly after her passing.  The suit was resolved by a division of her property, with half going back to the McKeys and half going to Henry in trust until Doc came of age. Doc’s relationship with his father became strained, an issue that would be compounded as Doc gained infamy as a gunfighter later in life.

Trouble Early On

Growing up in the south during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War proved detrimental to Doc’s development as a young adult. Two events, in particular, stand out in terms of their lewdness and possible impact on Doc’s decision to attend dental school in the north. It is important to note that both events have been retold and exaggerated over time, making the truth within them harder to discern. Regardless, these stories were confirmed, in part, by Doc’s family members in later years, suggesting that Doc did partake in both incidents, and that his involvement may have forced his family to recommend Doc leave Georgia in search of a fresh start.

The exact date of the first event, known as the Courthouse incident, is unknown, but it was likely during, or close, to the year 1868. Following the end of the Civil War, the Union put the Freedmen's Bureau in charge of Lowndes County, and stationed them out of the courthouse. This meant that African Americans and Union veterans from the north were running the town of Valdosta. Many of the town's citizens were fed up with this arrangement and devised a plan to blow up the courthouse. A group of young men marched down to the courthouse square, allegedly Doc among them, but the plot was disbanded following a meeting of prominent local citizens. Many individuals involved in the attempt to rid the town of the northerners were forced to flee temporarily.

The second event, referred to as the Swimming Hole incident, happened on the Withlacoochee River either sometime in the late 1860's or early 1870's. Doc's uncles, Thomas S. McKey and William Harrison McKey, bought a piece of land on the river. Soon thereafter, Doc and some of his friends worked tirelessly to create a swimming hole out of a section of the property where the river crossed. One day, Doc and his uncle Thomas rode out to the hole, finding a group of African Americans playing in the water. Doc drew his pistol and shot over their heads, in an attempt to scare them off. Over time, the incident has been reiterated, often being exaggerated into a story of Doc's untamed anger resulting in a massacre.

Withlacoochee River circa 1910

View of the Withlacoochee River, ca. 1910

The Decision for Dentistry

When considering his future profession, Doc wanted to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and pursue a career in medicine. Dr. John had convinced his nephew of the importance of continuing his education, but felt that dentistry was a better option. The 19th century brought great advancements to the field of dentistry, particularly in regards to education. There was a dire need for reputable, well-trained practitioners to combat the persistent quackery common in early medicine.

In 1840, Horace Hayden and Chapin A. Harris chartered the world’s first dental school, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, thus establishing the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree. Along with the school, the founders also started a museum collection, becoming the predecessor of the National Museum of Dentistry.

To learn more about the history of the National Museum of Dentistry, watch our short video here

Between 1865 and 1870, five new dental schools were founded in the United States, although none were situated in the south. The Reconstruction period following the Civil War left the southern states at a disadvantage, and tensions were incredibly high. After consulting with family, it was decided that a school in the north might offer Doc the most stable environment for completing his studies. Coupled with his recent troubles engaging in shameful activities, enrolling in a reputable dental school out of state offered Doc a clean slate. At age 19, Doc left home to make the long trip to Philadelphia, via train and ship, to begin his dental training at The Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery.