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Tombstone’s Surgeon to the Gunfighters

Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society. Sources: Don Chaput, Dr. Goodfellow; Richard Dunlop, Doctors of the American Frontier; George W. Parsons, The Private Journal of George Whitwell Parsons.

Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society. Sources: Don Chaput, Dr. Goodfellow; Richard Dunlop, Doctors of the American Frontier; George W. Parsons, The Private Journal of George Whitwell Parsons.

Dr. George Goodfellow with his horse, a gift from Mexico’s President Porfirio Diaz.

In the 1880s, Tombstone was home to Dr. George Goodfellow, a surgeon who patched up the town’s troublemakers after street fights, bar fights and duels. He treated some of Tombstone’s most famous gunfighters such as Doc Holliday, Morgan and Virgil Earp and Billy Clanton from his office above the Crystal Palace Saloon.

Goodfellow graduated with honors in 1876 from Wooster University School of Medicine in Cleveland. A year later, he arrived in Prescott to become a doctor at a mine, but almost immediately quit to become an Army surgeon at Fort Lowell. In 1879, he published an article in the Medical Record on a procedure for treating an internal hemorrhage resulting from a gunshot wound. He was ahead of his time, and his methods were largely ignored by East Coast doctors. Had it been adopted at the time, his procedure might well have saved the life of President James Garfield when he was shot by an assassin in 1881.

Although Goodfellow was a competent surgeon, he was also a heavy drinker, a hothead and a womanizer. He was a champion boxer and at the age of 18 had been expelled from the U.S. Naval Academy for fighting. Even at age 34, he had shown no inclination toward reforming and continued to engage in various barroom brawls. From time to time he had to repair wounds and injuries brought on by his own hand and gun. During one incident, Goodfellow fatally stabbed his opponent with a four-inch dagger. The court ruled that it was self-defense but fined him $25 for carrying a concealed weapon.

In 1879, Goodfellow moved to Tombstone where his abilities as a surgeon were frequently tested. On Feb. 25, 1881, two men got into a fight over cards. Out on the street, one pulled a gun and shot the other in the chest. Goodfellow tried unsuccessfully to stop the bleeding by stuffing a handkerchief into the victim’s wound.

Several months later, Goodfellow operated on a man who was shot in the gut after being accused of cheating at cards. Following his own recommended procedures, Goodfellow trimmed and sutured the man’s internal wounds, thoroughly cleaned the cavity with warm water and closed the external wound. The man made a slow but full recovery.

On June 22, 1881, Goodfellow performed reconstructive surgery on George Parsons, a Tombstone historian who fought to save buildings as a fire raged through the town’s business section. A roof collapsed on Parsons. He later wrote, “the worst wound was caused by a stick going through my upper lip, cutting a round hole and going thence through the left side of my face.” Goodfellow devised a nose splint for Parson’s mangled face. His skill resulted in “a fine Roman nose free from disfigurement.”

Goodfellow also testified at the inquest of the killings of Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury by Doc Holliday and the Earps. He claimed that based upon the post mortem examination, the wounds of the deceased were consistent with having fired at Earp and Holliday and not surrendering with their hands in the air.

Besides performing surgeries, Goodfellow cared for injured miners, delivered babies, performed appendectomies and set broken bones. He also spent time researching cures for tuberculosis and other epidemics, and published several medical opinions on rattlesnake and Gila monster bites in Scientific American and Southern California Practitioner. He took a macabre pleasure in shooting out candles in the company of dinner guests. In one post mortem, he wrote that he “found the body to be rich in lead but too badly punctured to hold whiskey.”

One of Goodfellow’s crowning achievements was a mercy expedition he led to Bavispe, Mexico, after an earthquake devastated the city in 1887. He was honored by Mexican President Porfirio Diaz and was given the horse shown in this photograph.

In 1891, Goodfellow moved to Tucson where he served as head surgeon for the Southern Pacific Railroad and became the Arizona Territory health officer. Seven years later, he joined the U.S. Army as Gen. William Shafter’s personal physician. Goodfellow went on to serve in all the major battles of the Spanish American War and acted as the interpreter and negotiator during the Spanish surrender. After establishing a successful practice in San Francisco, Goodfellow died of what was described as “multiple neuritis” in 1910 at the age of 54.

— Jane Eppinga. 

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