‘Gunfighter’s Surgeon’ Became a Southwest Legend

Times Staff Writer

He’s been dead for more than 90 years, but a frontier boxing champion and the man known as the “gunfighter’s surgeon” came to life a few weeks ago to say a few words about his life and frontier medicine.

Dr. George Emery Goodfellow was among five deceased Angelenos remembered at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery during the West Adams Heritage Assn.'s annual living history tour. Actors decked out in period costumes portrayed the famous -- and infamous -- buried at the graveyard, known for its unusual epitaphs and tombstones.

Like many of the cemetery’s permanent residents, Goodfellow is one whose noteworthy medical accomplishments, largely forgotten, should be recalled from time to time.

Whether he was pioneering the removal of enlarged prostates or tending wounded gunfighters on the mean streets of Tombstone, Ariz., he kept it all alive in medical reports. He became a Southwest legend and someone people pointed to and talked about during his brief time in Los Angeles.

Throughout a medical career that spanned more than three decades, according to a 1973 paper published by retired Pasadena urologist Earl F. Nation, Goodfellow achieved legendary status for his medical care of Tombstone’s outlaws and lawmen. He has the distinction of being the first physician known to operate successfully on abdominal gunshot wounds, and was praised as the first to perform a successful “perineal prostatectomy” in 1891.


Goodfellow was born in 1855 and raised in the northern Sierra gold-mining town of Downieville. At age 12, his parents sent him to school in Pennsylvania. Two years later, he returned to the Golden State to attend the California Military Academy in Oakland. He returned to the East in 1872 at 17, this time to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

His Annapolis career was cut short when he knocked unconscious the school’s first black cadet, John Henry Conyers of South Carolina, in a hazing incident. Because Goodfellow was the school’s boxing champion, it caused a public uproar and he was suspended. Weeks later, Conyers was dismissed for fighting with his roommate.

Goodfellow’s maternal uncle, John Baskin, a Utah judge, interceded with his friend, President Grant, and was assured that his nephew would be reinstated after the public furor subsided. His uncle left office, however, and Grant was then too busy winning reelection to fulfill his promise.

Rather than stay down for the count, Goodfellow began to study medicine with his cousin, a doctor. In 1877, he graduated from what is now the College of Wooster in Ohio, and that same year married a Pennsylvanian, Katherine Colt. Together they returned to Oakland, where Goodfellow opened a practice. Restless, he moved to Tombstone.

Hung Shingle Over Bar

In 1880, Goodfellow, 25, hung his shingle over the legendary Crystal Palace Saloon. The town of 2,000 residents already had 12 doctors, but only he and three others sported diplomas.

Over the next 11 years, his association with the likes of Wyatt Earp and his four brothers, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, John O’Rourke, alias “Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce,” “Curly” Bill Brocius, “Buckskin” Frank Leslie, the Clanton and McLaury brothers, and a host of others, put money in Goodfellow’s pocket and earned him the nickname the “gunfighter’s surgeon.”

After the infamous 1881 shootout at the OK Corral, Goodfellow helped to perform the autopsies on Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers.

He also tended to the living: It was Goodfellow who pronounced Morgan Earp’s wound fatal after Earp was shot in the back while playing pool with his brother Wyatt. When Virgil Earp was later ambushed and his left arm almost blown off, Goodfellow removed four inches of shattered bone, saving the useless arm. With his good arm, Virgil could still handle a gun and later served as marshal in Colton.

Over the years, Goodfellow, a surgical innovator, published his medical findings. He early on observed that abdominal wounds from the Colt .44 or .45 were invariably fatal: “Gunfighters’ maxim is ‘shoot for the guts,’ knowing that death is certain, yet sufficiently lingering and agonizing to afford a plenary sense of gratification to the victor in the contest.”

In his notes on the “Impenetrability of Silk,” he watched two gamblers, Luke Short and Charlie Storms, in a gunfight in 1881, just a few feet from where he stood. Short blasted Storms through the heart. Upon examining Storms, Goodfellow noted that the gambler’s folded silk pocket handkerchief was stuffed into the chest wound. Goodfellow pulled out the handkerchief and out came the bullet, which had killed Storms when it penetrated the heart.

Serving as coroner at various times in Tombstone, his verdicts were the stuff of Wild West legend. In an autopsy report on a gambler named McIntire, shot in an argument over a card game, Goodfellow stated that he had done “the necessary assessment work and found the body full of lead, but not too badly punctured to hold whiskey.”

In 1884, he watched a group of Tombstone vigilantes hang a notorious Texas gunman, 32-year-old Jack Heath. The coroner’s jury required no testimony because all jurors were members of the vigilante committee.

All the jurors, including Goodfellow, had been witnesses or parties to the lynching. The usual wording of “by parties unknown” was too crass even for these hard-bitten men. So Goodfellow suggested the victim died of emphysema. When some of the jury asked, “Hell, Doc, what’s that?” he replied, “Something that causes shortness of breath at high altitudes.”

Befriended Geronimo

Restless and seeking adventure, Goodfellow left Tombstone in 1886 and joined the manhunt for Apache chieftain Geronimo, who had escaped from the San Carlos Reservation in central Arizona. After Geronimo and his followers surrendered, Goodfellow befriended the great warrior.

Always intrigued by how an Apache within 10 feet of a sentry could shoot an arrow without a twang of the bowstring being heard, he bet Geronimo that the warrior couldn’t do it. A tree was selected as a target and Goodfellow shut his eyes. He didn’t hear a thing. When he opened them, there were three arrows in the tree, and Geronimo went off to prison $20 richer.

In 1886, while Goodfellow was still living in Tombstone, he led a rescue team deep into Sonora, Mexico, to help victims of an earthquake. The grateful townsfolk christened him “El Santo Doctor.” When he returned to Tombstone, Mexican President Porfirio Diaz sent his soldiers to Arizona to present him with a horse (alleged to have been stolen from the U.S. Cavalry) and a double-headed silver Austrian Eagle, left behind by Mexico’s short-lived Austrian-born ruler Emperor Maximilian, who was executed in 1867.

Still, cutting people open is what Goodfellow did best, even though he lost a few along the way. In 1891, when he failed to save the life of the chief surgeon of the Southern Pacific Railroad, who had been shot by his estranged wife’s attorney, he took over the railroad doctor’s job.

That same year, at St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson, Goodfellow performed what many consider the first perineal prostatectomy, an operation he designed to treat bladder problems caused by an enlarged prostate.

Over the next decade, he crisscrossed the U.S. demonstrating his operation and attracting patients from all parts of the country. Dr. Hugh H. Young, a urology professor at Johns Hopkins, learned the technique from Goodfellow.

In 1896, Goodfellow set up practice in downtown Los Angeles at 621 S. Main St., joined the California Club and presented his vividly detailed report on perineal prostatectomy before the Southern California Medical Society. A few years later, after performing 78 operations, he documented two deaths. Survivors didn’t suffer incontinence or need a catheter after surgery.

While in Los Angeles, he pioneered dramatic advances in spinal anesthesia, and is credited with improving the technique by dissolving cocaine crystals in spinal fluid. He later switched back to chloroform after he said several of his patients began to die in “strange and devious ways.”

Medicine Bag of Booze

Always on the move, Goodfellow joined his good friend Gen. William R. Shafter as a civilian volunteer in the Cuban campaign of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Fluent in Spanish and armed with a medicine bag of booze, Goodfellow persuaded an inept Cuban general to surrender at Santiago de Cuba.

For his trouble, Goodfellow received a rare commendation for “especially meritorious services, professional and military.” He later remarked that never had alcohol been used for a better or more therapeutic purpose.

After the war, Goodfellow settled in San Francisco and joined the California Medical Assn. in 1901. Five years later, when the Great Earthquake struck, he fled his hotel room in panic. He received another jolt when he realized he had left behind the medical manuscript that he had spent almost his entire life writing.

The only possession he managed to save was an Asian rug that he promptly loaned to the half-clad Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Weeping hysterically, Caruso somehow managed to wrap the rug around his rotund body.

Shaken not only by the earthquake but by a nervous disorder that made it impossible for him to operate, Goodfellow returned to Los Angeles to be with his daughter Edith, her husband, Dr. Charles W. Fish, and his friend Wyatt Earp. Goodfellow died at Angelus Hospital on Dec. 7, 1910, at age 54.

Although his son-in-law stated that the cause of death was “multiple neuritis,” Dr. Nation, the Pasadena urologist, and others suspected that Goodfellow died of alcoholism.