It’s hard for us to imagine how poor dental health was until recently. Michael Korda’s new biography of Lawrence of Arabia (Hero) gives a startling example. T.E. Lawrence enlisted in the Royal Air Force when he was 32, shortly after the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference (described in Dreamers of the Day). His records show that he was missing eight teeth and had serious decay in twelve others.
Get this: his dental status was listed as “good.”
Lawrence was from a rather well-off family that lived in Oxford, England. Toothbrushes were being mass-produced in Europe by the 1840s, but didn’t come into common use in America until the 1880s. Try to imagine what teeth were like for pioneers on the American frontier!
As described in Doc, by 1878, John Henry Holliday’s health had stabilized enough for him to open a dental office in Dodge City. That was the last time he was able to hang out a shingle. As his condition deteriorated, he was unable to take patients on a regular basis, but he continued to do emergency dental surgeries until close to the end of his life. If someone was in misery because of an abcessed tooth, Doc could gather enough quick strength to pull it, though he was unable to do the fine handwork necessary for creating and fitting bridges and dentures.
Several sources indicate that Wyatt had bad teeth and that he needed extensive dental care at various times in his life. Were his front teeth among the missing? I can’t prove that, but the idea didn’t come out of nowhere.
We know that Wyatt tried twice to enlist in the army during the Civil War, but he was not accepted. Biographers generally assume he was too young to serve, or that his father prevented his enlistment, but kids younger than Wyatt were allowed to join up and the Union was desperate for soldiers by 1863. On the other hand, one of the few enlistment requirements in those days was that you had good front teeth because you had to bite the paper gun powder packets open when loading a musket. We also know that Nicholas Earp was a violent, profane, bad-tempered s.o.b. who beat the tar out of his kids. And I wanted to account for the unusual fact that a middle child like Wyatt to come to the fore among the six Earp brothers.
So I combined all that to come up with the scene where Wyatt defends his little brother from their father’s wrath, and gets his teeth knocked out for it.
Even if nothing like that really happened, incisors have only a single, simple root and in populations without dental care, the incisors are often lost in early adulthood. We also know that Dr. John Henry Holliday won awards for his fine work on dentures and bridges.
So did Doc Holliday make a bridge for Wyatt Earp? Maybe. Maybe not. This is a case where what I’ve written may not be strictly historical, but it’s plausible — and an economical way to tie together historical facts and the narrative arc of a story.