Even those not keen on the western movie genre nor movie-lovers, know about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a 1957. movie starring Burt Lancaster (Wyatt Earp) and Kirk Douglas (Doc Holliday). The better informed ones know that the movie is based on a real event – a shootout that lasted 30 seconds with 30 shots fired, on October 26, 1881. in a small town of Tombstone, Arizona.

Why write about the shootout at O.K. Corral on this webportal about science? Be patient, continue reading and learn something.

This showdown between the frontier marshals and a group of cowboys who refused to obey the laws had a distant echo in the modern American history. That was a time when the Wild West started losing some of its’ wildness and the beginning of law enforcement. Cowboys were less considered to be loners with the occasional livestock protection jobs, and more to be scatterbrains, bullies and people who opposed the introduction of the rule of law to territories they occupied, limited as their land deeds during the settlement of the West (and the genocide of numerous indigenous peoples’ tribes).



Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday

On the other hand, the state appointed sheriffs who could handle these issues on the Border. Frontier marshals, as they called these border sheriffs, were no better than cowboys, but they did work in the interest of the state and for state salaries. Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil and Morgan are the best known. They weren’t exactly examples of human greatness nor morally superior – they were good on the trigger, souteneurs to local prostitutes and brothel owners, gamblers, buffalo hunters… nothing better than trash they imprisoned. The young federation of states which had yet to take its’ place on the world map needed people like that.

The participants of the shootout were sheriffs Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp on one side and the brothers Clanton with a number of cowboys who supported them on the other side. It was essentially a showdown of the Earp and Clanton families. The Clanton brothers caused problems for Virgil Earp for some time, when he finally decided to call his brothers and show all outlaws what happens if they don’t obey the laws. Young laws of a young country. Although family-related, the showdown had a political background – establishment of the rule of law in the whole territory of States.

Doc Holliday had a central role in the showdown.
Doc Holliday, a rare photo when he was 20, source: wikimiediacommons

Doc Holliday was born as John Henry Holliday on August 14, 1851. in Griffin, Georgia – now one of Atlanta’s suburbs. Doc’s father fought during the Mexican-American War against Cherokee Indians, and later went on to fight in the Civil War – for the Confederation. Doc’s father brought home and adopted a young Mexican gunman fast on the trigger from the Mexican-American War, Francisco. It is said that Francisco taught Doc everything about handling guns. Doc Holliday is the man referred to as the “fastest trigger in the West”.

Holliday gained his nickname “Doc” due to a degree in dentistry. He was a brilliant, smart student with a bright looking future, promising career and a calm, respectable life in the West of the United States of America. However, not long after he started a private practice, Holliday is diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was around 22 years old at the time.

There was no cure for tuberculosis at the time – penicillin was yet to be patented during World War II, even though Fleming discovered it in 1928. Henry Florey lead a team at Oxford – one of the first interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary teams, to find a way for a quick and efficient production of penicillin for military purposes. Florey’s idea didn’t get recognition in England, and the significance of it would be acknowledged in the USA, and by Merck company. However, penicillin was not effective against Mycobacterium tuberculosis and it would have to wait until the invention of streptomycin, even after World War II, to bring this disease under control.

Not to mention the BCG vaccine. Robert Koch discovered Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causing agent of tuberculosis in 1854. but the creation of the anti-tuberculosis vaccine didn’t go as “easy” as the creation of the smallpox vaccine. The first vaccine was a disaster – scientists followed the smallpox analogy and created a vaccine with an agnate bacteria, Mycobacterium bovis, a bacteria equally dangerous as Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Only during the 1930s, a satisfactory anti-tuberculosis vaccine was created, but it was accepted at a slow pace, because you won’t believe it, people didn’t trust vaccines at the time, especially due to the catastrophic results of the vaccine containing Mycobacterium bovis. At the time, tuberculosis was also called “consumption” because it would literally eat a man slowly, from the inside.

Until the modern age – of antibiotics and vaccines – the only way one diagnosed with tuberculosis could extend his life span, maybe even cure himself, were air spas. The ones in Switzerland, particularly in Davos, were the best known spas in Europe. Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” heroes meditate in one such clinic, in Davos.


The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann

The warm Wild West air was believed to have a healing effect on tuberculosis in the USA.Doc Holliday had, just as he found out that he had tuberculosis, packed and left to Texas. He spent some time in Dallas, the last civilized place before the border with the Wild West, the territory of renegades, lawlessness, “uncharted territory”.


Because he couldn’t practice dentistry – due to severe coughing he couldn’t operate his dentistry tools nor come close to patients due to the chance of infecting them too, Holliday started gambling so he could support himself. A lot of small gamblers’ misunderstandings ending in showdowns and a lot of reaching for alcohol stemmed from his gambling habit. Doc knew he couldn’t afford getting married because every day was a struggle for life. However, he did have some kind of a life companion – a prostitute, “big Nose” Kate.Tuberculosis destroyed this man’s life – if Doc had lived in a time when penicillin and vaccines existed, he wouldn’t have to run to the Wild West, turning to saloons, prostitutes, showdowns and gambling. If it wasn’t for that, we would never hear of a gunslinger that good. He wouldn’t save Wyatt Earp and befriend him. He wouldn’t become sheriff’s deputy and participate at the O.K. Corral gunfight – in which he had a significant role helping Earp and at the same time wishing for his own death and riddance of the disease that ate him. Instead of dying of tuberculosis at age 36 somewhere in the West, he could have had a decent life, died a lot later as a respectable citizen and maybe even had children.

How odd that a disease, today curable and significantly suppressed, could change a person’s life that much. Of course, this is not a story about how great it is that Doc had tuberculosis because otherwise he wouldn’t become a legend, but a story about how an incurable disease can bring a man to despair, to the point where he seeks his own death.

Once more – don’t be one of those parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated.



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Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.