Dr. George Goodfellow: More Than an “OK” Doctor

Geo1Good healthcare is not something to be taken for granted. And good healthcare in the Old West was really not something to be taken for granted. In fact, many, if not most, doctors in the Old West had no actual…Oh, what is the word? Oh, yeah, education. Many “doctors” in the Old West had no education. So, when you found a doctor who had some training and licensing to go along with the title, you had found yourself a prize. Dr. George Goodfellow was a prize among Old West docs.

For He Wasn’t Always a Jolly Goodfellow

Geo2George Emory Goodfellow was born in 1855—smack in the middle of the California Gold Rush. Growing up around mining camps was an education in itself, but his parents still opted for something a little more formal. When George was twelve-years-old, he was sent to boarding school in Pennsylvania. At fourteen, he entered the California Military Academy in Oakland. And, at seventeen, he entered the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Things were going great until George was suspended from the Naval Academy for what some people called a “hazing incident.” If you call knocking the school’s first black cadet unconscious a “hazing incident” instead of a hate crime . . . well, I disagree, but. . .tomato, tomahto.

When appeals to President Ulysses S. Grant and the First Lady weren’t successful in regaining George’s position at the Naval Academy, he moved on to plan B. He studied medicine with his cousin the doctor and graduated from the College of Wooster in Ohio. He briefly opened a medical practice in Oakland, California before moving to Arizona, eventually settling in Tombstone.

Bar Exam

Tombstone, Arizona in 1880
Tombstone, Arizona in 1880

In 1880, Goodfellow arrived in Tombstone and hung his medical shingle over the Crystal Palace Saloon. You might say that enabled him to administer bar exams. Okay. I take it back. You would never say that. Dr. Goodfellow became the thirteenth doctor in town  – – and the fourth doctor to actually have a diploma – –  when he opened his office on the second floor of the saloon. It is said that Goodfellow might as well have had two offices, given the amount of time he spent drinking in the bar at the Crystal Palace. But the location was good for business because, well. . .did I mention that this was Tombstone, Arizona?

The Crystal Palace Saloon
The Crystal Palace Saloon

Being known as a hard drinking, ladies’ man made him less than an ideal husband, but it didn’t make him less than a fine doctor. He was a friend to the Earp brothers, Tombstone business owners, and local miners, but that didn’t keep the disreputable cowboys from seeking his services as well.


Bullet Points

Goodfellow’s wife happened to be the cousin of Samuel Colt, the inventor of the Colt revolver. That was a providential union since that weapon provided Dr. Goodfellow with more business than he could shake a stick at. It’s always good to know how your bread is buttered!

In fact, Dr. Goodfellow was the foremost authority on gunshot wounds in the country. Admittedly other doctors had set the bar a little low. Prior to Goodfellow, retrieving a bullet from the abdomen meant that a doctor stuck his unsterilized fingers into the bullet hole and hoped to pull out a bullet. Goodfellow was the first known doctor to perform a sterile laparotomy to treat an abdominal gunshot wound. What do you know? The patient lived! Who would have thought that having a doctor sterilize instruments, wash his hands, and clean the patient’s wounds could make the difference between life and death? If you answered, “Dr. Joseph Lister,” you are correct. However, even though Lister first demonstrated sterilization techniques for surgery in 1865, the idea hadn’t exactly swept the nation.

More than an “OK” Doctor

It just so happened that being an expert on gunshot wounds was exactly what people wanted from a doctor in Tombstone, Arizona. After all, it wasn’t exactly a retirement community! Goodfellow’s skills were particularly useful following the infamous shootout near the OK Corral.

Billy Clanton
Billy Clanton

The good doctor treated the gunshot wounds on Deputy U.S. Marshal, Virgil Earp, and Assistant U.S. Marshal, Morgan Earp on that fateful day. He also treated Billy Clanton, who had been on the other side of the law. Billy Clanton didn’t make it, but Goodfellow did fulfill his final request by removing Clanton’s cowboy boots. Billy Clanton had promised his mama that he would die with his boots off. He just barely kept that promise.

Ike Clanton
Ike Clanton

When Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday in the deaths of three cowboys involved in the shootout, Goodfellow’s testimony was instrumental in gaining an acquittal. Two months after the shootout, when Virgil Earp was wounded in an ambush, Goodfellow rushed to his side and saved his badly injured arm. He was also called when Morgan Earp was mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet.

The lynching of John Heath
The lynching of John Heath

Some of the more humorous anecdotes about Goodfellow involve his duties as coroner. When the townspeople of Tombstone took the law into their own hands by lynching John Heath, Goodfellow was present. Heath had received a prison sentence but the townfolk felt he deserved well. . .more. Even in one of the Old West’s most notorious towns, it was illegal to kidnap a man from prison and string him up from a telegraph pole. As coroner, Goodfellow’s findings would determine whether or not charges would be filed against those involved. Everything hinged on his coroner’s report. He solved that problem by writing a clever report that said John Heath had died from, “emphysema of the lungs which might have been, and probably was, caused by strangulation, self-inflicted or otherwise, as in accordance with the medical evidence.”

A Different Kind of Bullet Points

Geo10When talking about a fascinating man like Dr. George E. Goodfellow, it’s impossible to include everything about his life. But here are a few bullet points of a different kind that may interest you (Many of them don’t even involve actual bullets!):

  • Goodfellow pioneered the use of spinal anesthesia.
  • He was the first surgeon to perform a perineal prostatectomy to remove an enlarged prostate. He traveled the country training other surgeons in the procedure.
  • He performed the first appendectomy in Arizona, which makes you wonder how many people had died from appendicitis prior to that time.
  • He pioneered the concept of bulletproof fabrics and clothing.  On multiple occasions he noted that gunshot victims were saved from serious injury when a bullet hit a doubled thickness of silk. Goodfellow experimented with making bulletproof clothing. While he never perfected the product, the idea of a bulletproof fabric spread quickly. Gangsters were soon paying $800 for silk vests, which they believed would protect them.
  • Goodfellow was the man behind the idea of treating tuberculosis patients with the dry climate of Arizona.
    He published articles on the venomous bites of rattlesnakes and Gila monsters.
  • It was Goodfellow who published the first surface rupture map of an earthquake in North America.
  • While in a bar in Tombstone, he got into a drunken fight with another man. Goodfellow stabbed the man, but it was determined that he had acted in self-defense.
  • It is said that Goodfellow rode with the U.S. Army in an 1886 attempt to recapture Geronimo. Following Geronimo’s apprehension, Goodfellow, speaking fluent Spanish and a smidge of Apache, interviewed and befriended Geronimo.
  • Goodfellow practiced medicine in Tombstone for eleven years before serving as personal physical to General William Shafter during the Spanish-American War.
  • He later practiced medicine in San Francisco, until he lost everything during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

Geo11The tombstone of Tombstone’s most prized doctor was discovered in Los Angeles, long after his death in 1910. His obituary said he died of a nervous breakdown. After reading through some of his adventures, I shouldn’t wonder!

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia

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