Doc Holliday: Gambler, Gunfighter… Dentist

Dentist Doc Holliday and two of his more famous movie portrayals

John Henry “Doc” Holliday (August 14, 1851 – November 8, 1887) was an American gambler, gunfighter, and dentist. A close friend and associate of lawman Wyatt Earp, Holliday is best known for his role in the events leading up to and following the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He developed a reputation as having killed over a dozen men in various altercations, but researchers have concluded that, contrary to popular belief, Holliday killed only one to three men. Holliday’s colorful life and character have been depicted in many books and portrayed by well-known actors in numerous movies and television series.[1]

Doc Holliday in dental school
Left: Doc Holliday’s dental school portrait, Right: The Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, 1872

At age 21, Holliday earned a degree in dentistry from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. He set up practice in Atlanta, Georgia, but he was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis, the same disease that had claimed his mother when he was 15. He acquired it while tending to her needs while she was still in the contagious phase of the illness. This made it impossible for him to continue practicing dentistry, and effective cures for tuberculosis were not discovered until the 1940’s. [14] Hoping the climate in the American Southwest would ease his symptoms, he moved to that region and became a gambler, a reputable profession in Arizona in that day.[2] Over the next few years, he reportedly had several confrontations. He saved Wyatt Earp while in Texas during a standoff in a saloon. [5] After rescuing Earp, they became friends. In 1879, he joined Earp in Las Vegas, New Mexico and then rode with him to Prescott, Arizona,[3] and then Tombstone. In Tombstone, local members of the outlaw Cochise County Cowboys repeatedly threatened him and spread rumors that he had robbed a stage. On October 26, 1881, Holliday was deputized by Tombstone city marshal Virgil Earp. The lawmen attempted to disarm five members of the Cowboys near the O.K. Corral on the west side of town, which resulted in the 30-second shootout.

Wyatt Earp describing dentist Doc Holliday

Following the Tombstone shootout, Virgil Earp was maimed by hidden assailants while Morgan Earp was murdered. Unable to obtain justice in the courts, Wyatt Earp took matters into his own hands. As the recently appointed deputy U.S. marshal, Earp formally deputized Holliday, among others. As a federal posse, they pursued the outlaw Cowboys they believed were responsible. They found Frank Stilwell lying in wait as Virgil boarded a train for California and killed him. The local sheriff issued a warrant for the arrest of five members of the federal posse, including Holliday. The federal posse killed three other Cowboys during late March and early April 1882, before they rode to the New Mexico Territory. Wyatt Earp learned of an extradition request for Holliday and arranged for Colorado Governor Frederick Walker Pitkin to deny Holliday’s extradition. Holliday spent the few remaining years of his life in Colorado, and died of tuberculosis in his bed at the Hotel Glenwood at age 36.[4]

Val Kilmer, left, as Doc Holliday
Val Kilmer, left, as Holliday from ‘Tombstone’ in the infamous O.K. Corral scene

Two of Doc Holliday’s more recent portrayals in film were the well received performances by Val Kilmer in 1993’s Tombstone and Dennis Quaid in 1994’s Wyatt Earp. In both of these films, The Doc Holliday character are sources of much needed comic relief in otherwise serious films, Wyatt Earp being a 3+ hour long biopic of Earp’s life, Tombstone focusing around the events at the O.K. Corral. While Doc Holliday is hardly a role model, it’s very interesting to me that a dentist has achieved such lasting notoriety in history.

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  1. Roberts, Gary L. (2006). Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-26291-9.:407–409
  2. “Gambling in the Old West”. History Net. Wild West Magazine. June 12, 2006. Archived from the original on April 24, 2015. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
  3. Gary L. Roberts (May 12, 2011). Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend. John Wiley & Sons. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-118-13097-1.
  4. The Associated Press. “A New Tombstone Sets the Record Straight for Doc Holliday”. The New York Times. NYT. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
  6. Doc Holliday photo and Wyatt Earp quote from:
  7. Dennis Quaid photo from:
  8. Val Kilmer photo from:
  9. Wyatt Earp photo from:
  10. Doc Holliday dental school photo from:
  11. Wyatt Earp, Produced by Kasdan Pictures and Tig Productions, Distributed by Warner Bros., 1994, 190 minutes.
  12. Tombstone, Produced by Hollywood Pictures and Cinergi Pictures, Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures, 1993, 130 minutes.
  13. O.K. Corral photo from: