Doc Holliday and Dentistry of the Wild West

What was it like visiting the dentist in the 1800's? Tombstone, AZ and Doc Holliday know!
What was it like visiting the dentist in the 1800’s? Tombstone, AZ and Doc Holliday know!

Have you heard of the Gunfight at The O.K. Corral? In October of 1881, the town marshal of Tombstone, Arizona and his deputies took on the infamous Cowboy gang over a long-standing dispute. That town marshal was Virgil Earp and his deputies were his brothers Wyatt and Morgan Earp. John Henry “Doc” Holliday also stood by their side to defeat the gang members in the notorious gunfight that only lasted 30 seconds.

Today, Tombstone is known for its history of shootouts and silver mining. Stories of Old West gunslingers like Doc Holliday are still told. What most people don’t know is that some of these outlaws had meaningful jobs. One of the most surprising is that of Doc Holliday, who was a dentist by trade.

Doc Holliday, Gunslinger and Retired Dentist

Wondering where John Henry Holliday got the name “Doc” from? He was actually a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.)! Before he joined the Earp brothers in Tombstone, AZ Holliday even had his own practice. He graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery as a dentist by age 20. He picked up the nickname Doc while practicing as a dentist in Dodge City, Kansas.

If you’ve seen the movie Tombstone, you’re familiar with the adventures of Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp and their partner John Henry “Doc” Holliday. Despite the fact that the film takes creative license with the actual events that occurred, it presents the historical town of Tombstone in a way we don’t often get to see anymore.

Tombstone, Arizona

Tombstone was founded in 1877 by prospector Ed Schieffelin after he discovered silver in the area. The town was named after his first mine, “The Tombstone.” It was rumored that the soldiers at a nearby fort told Schieffelin he would be met with tombstones if he wandered alone in the area.

In the first four years of the silver mining industry in Tombstone, an estimated $25 million worth of ore was harvested from the area. The population grew to over 5,000 and the town established local newspapers, theaters, a courthouse and even a hotel.

Life in the wild west was hard though. Illnesses, diseases and toothaches were not easily cured with 19th century practices. Many people suffered from poor oral hygiene and life spans were much shorter than they are now.

Picture the tools, equipment, lights, and comfort items your dentist has ready for you today. From anesthesia to cushioned chairs, the technology that your dentist uses wasn’t available a century ago. Odds are if you lived back then, you never brushed your teeth. If you experienced a toothache or had a decaying tooth, extraction was the only solution. Sometimes, you didn’t even get the luxury of a dentist taking out your pearly whites. Instead, the local blacksmith took care of you. And it was no easy affair — as seen in these photos.

Tombstone, Arizona now acts as a living reminder of the bygone days of the wild west. Visitors can learn about the town and what life was like, and they may even see a gunfight or two… though hopefully no old-school dental extractions are taking place!

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