It interests me that the profession of doctor and the profession of gunslinger should both be so dependent on dexterity—and hand/eye coordination—yet one takes life and the other saves it. But it fascinates me even more that the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West should have taken place at a time when one of the greatest doctors in the nation, a specialist in gunshot wounds whose methods are still employed today, should have been practicing in Tombstone, AZ.
|George Goodfellow, photo by C.S.Fly, Tombstone|
George Emory Goodfellow was born a westerner although educated back east. Son of a miner—eventually a mining engineer and mining executive—Goodfellow was sent off to boarding school at the age of twelve but returned to California to attend military academy. His future was certainly oriented toward a career in the armed services, and he briefly attended Annapolis before being expelled for fighting with the first African American cadet. Having a wide range of interests, Goodfellow sought out his cousin, a doctor, and studied with him before going on to medical school in Ohio. Returning west, he eventually settled in Arizona Territory, initially working in Prescott with the Army before relocating in 1880 to the flourishing mining town of…Tombstone.
If you’re envisaging a kindly country doctor along the lines of Doc Adams in ‘Gunsmoke,’ think again. The hard-drinking gambler, Goodfellow had been boxing champion at Annapolis and had a penchant for getting into fights, both with his fists and with a gun. Furthermore, he was quite the Renaissance Man with numerous and varied interests. Aged just twenty-five, he opened his office on the second floor of the Crystal Palace Saloon and settled down for his place in history. While many of his cases involved mining accidents, there was mounting practice in gunshot wounds. Making advancements in this area, he would eventually write articles that appeared in learned journals propounding that gunshots from .44 or .45 caliber into the abdomen were almost always fatal, as opposed to .32 calibre and lower. In those cases, he deduced, the main danger would be from either fecal or urinary matter causing infection. The higher calibire shot would rest in the abdominal cavity, thereby causing the victim to bleed to death unless a laparotomy was performed almost immediately. His treatise on this subject, ‘Cases of Gunshot Wound in the Abdomen Treated by Operation’ eventually appeared in the May, 1889, edition of The Southern California Practitioner. Goodfellow, who believed in Lister’s practice of antisepsis surgery and Germ Theory, actually performed the first laparotomy on a miner shot outside of Tombstone. This procedure is still in use today. He also observed a shoot-out that took place at close range, and discovered the bullet that entered one of the contenders was still wrapped in a silk handkerchief from the man’s pocket. Studying this closely, he wrote, ‘Notes on the Impenetrability of Silk to Bullets,’ also for the Southern California Practitioner. He advised that bullet-proof vests could be manufactured from silk, and made the first one of eighteen layers of silk. By the end of the century, such vests were in production.
So, by the time October, 1881, rolled around and there took place something now called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, it was extremely opportune that George Goodfellow was on call. Goodfellow tended to the wounded on both sides of the argument. Unable to help cowboy Billy Clanton with six bullets in him, he removed the boy’s boots because Billy had promised his mother to die with his boots off. Goodfellow's testimony at the Earps’ and Doc Holliday’s trial played a large part in having the case against them dismissed as self-defense; he testified that the position of Billy Claiborne’s arm could not have been raised in the air.
Two months later, Virgil Earp was ambushed as he walked from the Oriental Saloon, hitting him in the arm with buckshot. It was Goodfellow’s belief that the arm should be amputated but Virgil refused. Operating at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Goodfellow removed approximately four inches of the shattered humerus bone, saving the arm but leaving it crippled. Still, Virgil had his gun arm and was later able to serve as a US Marshal. His brother Morgan was not so lucky. Shot in the back while playing billiards, he died within the hour. As County Coroner, Goodfellow performed Morgan’s autopsy.
But while he was known as ‘The Gunslingers’ Surgeon,’ Goodfellow’s advances in medicine did not stop with gunshot wounds, nor was medicine his only field of expertise. In the coming years, he performed the first successful prostatectomy and was among the first surgeons to use spinal anesthesia. He performed reconstructive face surgery, and also advocated the dry air of the desert as a treatment for tuberculosis, facilitating the large number of sanatoriums that would soon appear in Arizona.
Outside of medicine, in 1886, Goodfellow rode with the US Army to recapture
Geronimo who had escaped from the San Carlos
reservation. He eventually befriended the man. In 1887, he made two trips to
aid survivors of the Sonoran earthquake and to study the effects of the quake. He
reported his findings in the US scientific journal, Science, and for his
work, the Mexican President awarded him the gift of a horse.
He proved, in
1891, that the bite of a Gila Monster was not necessarily fatal and published his
findings in Scientific American. And having become personal physician to
General Shafter during the Spanish-American War, he is credited with helping in
negotiations for the peace settlement, due to his knowledge of Spanish.
|Goodfellow on his gift horse|
Goodfellow’s later career had him setting up practice in Tucson prior to moving to San Francisco. Sadly, the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed his manuscripts and patient records, and Goodfellow was forced to take a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad in Mexico as their chief surgeon. He subsequently returned in 1910 to his sister’s home in Los Angeles, where he died aged fifty-five.
George Goodfellow, the ‘Gunslinger’s Surgeon,’ is credited with being the first trauma specialist.