May 31

This Day in History

Old West

May 31, 1887:

George Goodfellow investigates earthquake

Reflecting a scientific spirit that was rare among frontier physicians, Tombstone doctor George Goodfellow rushes south to investigate an earthquake in Mexico. Though keenly interested in earthquakes, Goodfellow is best remembered today for being one of the nation's leading experts on the treatment of gunshot wounds, a condition he had many opportunities to study in the wild mining town of Tombstone, Arizona.

Born in Downieville, California, in 1855, Goodfellow studied medicine at Cleveland Medical College and graduated with honors in 1876. He practiced briefly in Oakland, but then went to Prescott, Arizona, where his father was a mining engineer. After working for a time as an army contract surgeon, he relocated to Tombstone in 1880, one year before the Earps and McLaury-Clantons shot it out at the O.K. Corral. Since Tombstone was also home to dozens of other gunslingers and criminals, Goodfellow's skills as physician, surgeon, and coroner were in steady demand.

Although he was a serious and studious physician, Goodfellow was not above indulging in a bit of gallows humor, which was well suited to a town like Tombstone. Describing the condition of one murder victim, he wrote that the corpse was "rich in lead, but too badly punctured to hold whiskey." In his role as coroner, he deflected guilt from a vigilante lynch mob by officially ruling that the victim "came to his death from emphysema of the lungs, a disease common to high altitudes, which might have been caused by strangulation, self-inflicted or otherwise."

Yet Goodfellow did much more than perform autopsies on murder victims and treat bullet wounds. He developed new methods of operating on the prostate gland and performed the first successful prostatectomy in history. He was among the first surgeons anywhere, much less in the remote regions of the Wild West, to use spinal anesthesia. He advocated an open-air treatment of tuberculosis that soon made the desert climate of the Southwest the home of hundreds of sanatoriums.

In a time when many self-professed doctors had little or no formal training and used treatments that often did more harm than good, Goodfellow was a dedicated scientist who believed diseases could be cured with rational methods. He made frequent trips east to remain abreast of the latest medical breakthroughs. He was also a talented linguist and an avid student of geology, rushing to the Sonora Desert on this day in 1887 to study the effects of a powerful earthquake.

After 12 years in Tombstone, Goodfellow returned to California and became a leading physician in San Francisco. For those 12 years, though, Tombstone—today best known for its gunslingers, gamblers, and desperados—had one of the most scientifically advanced doctors in the West. Goodfellow died in Los Angeles in 1910 at the age of 64.

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