Doc Holliday’s incessant cough

It’s hard to believe now, but in the first half of the 19th century, tuberculosis—or consumption, as it was known until the 1880s—was responsible for one in five deaths, making it America’s deadliest disease. It was widely believed to be hereditary (like insanity), in part because multiple family members across generations died of the disease. Of course, we now know that’s due to the contagious nature of the disease and less-than-ideal living conditions.

Doc Holliday_Dallas_1874
Doc Holliday in 1874, a few years before he met Wyatt Earp

I recently read speculation by a historian that Doc Holliday might have been loyal to Wyatt Earp in part because Wyatt wasn’t afraid to be around him at a time when many people would have avoided such contact, with the implication being that Wyatt would have feared getting sick himself.

However, the timing struck me as a little off so I went looking for information and found a treasure trove in Sheila M. Rothman’s “Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History.”

Rothman confirmed what I seemed to have picked up elsewhere: People didn’t know the disease was contagious until 1882, when Robert Koch discovered the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. That was several years into Wyatt and Doc’s friendship. (Koch’s extensive work on tuberculosis won him the Nobel Prize in 1905.)

So maybe Wyatt wasn’t afraid of catching TB from Doc because he didn’t know any better (no one did). Or maybe that historian was referring to Bat Masterson’s comment about Doc that “it was easily seen that he was not a healthy man for he not only looked the part, but he incessantly coughed it as well.” That could certainly rattle the nerves of any companion.

It seems to me that you can’t understand a man like Doc Holliday without having some understanding of his disease. Rothman’s book gave me some valuable insight in that regard, and it also gave me some interesting cultural context.

Doc made choices throughout his life based on his search for a cure or at least some relief. For instance, he left Dodge City, Kansas, well before Wyatt did to try the supposedly therapeutic waters at Las Vegas, N.M., and wound up staying a while. That’s also where he met and became friends with Bill Leonard, and that friendship would play a key role in the events that later unfolded in Tombstone, Ariz.

Unfortunately, despite Koch’s efforts, a cure for tuberculosis was not found until the 1940s. Doc Holliday died of the disease in 1887. He was only 36 years old—a typical age for TB deaths in the 1800s.

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