1. Turow J. Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press; 2010.
  2. Tapper EB. Doctors on display: the evolution of television's doctors. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2010;23:393-399.
  3. Medic (TV series). Wikipedia. May 11, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  4. List of Medic episodes. Wikipedia. June 1, 2014. August 15, 2015.
  5. Turow J. Playing doctor. You Tube. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  6. Halberstam MJ. An M.D. reviews Dr. Welby of TV. New York Times. January 16, 1972. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  7. St. Elsewhere. Wikipedia. August 14, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  8. Doogie Howser, M.D. Wikipedia. July 30, 2015.,_M.D. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  9. Chicago Hope. Wikipedia. September 2010. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  10. Chicago Hope (1994-2000). IMDb. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  11. Markel H. A book doctors can't close. New York Times. August 17, 2009. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  12. Scrubs (TV series). Wikipedia. July 22, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  13. Weiss J. Scrubs: goofy, cartoonish, and the most accurate portrayal of the medical profession on TV. Slate. May 6, 2009. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  14. House (TV series). Wikipedia. August 13, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  15. Rich LE, Simmons J, Adams D, Thorp S. Mink M. The afterbirth of the clinic: a Foucauldian perspective on "House M.D." and American medicine in the 21st century. Perspec Biol Med. 2008;51:220-237.
  16. Medical Center (TV series). Wikipedia. July 14, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  17. Pioneers of television: doctors and nurses. PBS. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  18. Quincy, M.E. Wikipedia. July 17, 2015.,_M.E. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  19. Trapper John, M.D. Wikipedia. July 5, 2015.,_M.D. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  20. O'Connor JJ. TV reviews; on CBS 'Kay O'Brien.' New York Times. September 25, 1986. Accessed August 15, 20015.
  21. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Wikipedia. June 2015.,_Medicine_Woman Accessed August 15, 2015.
  22. Galbraith S IV. The complete series—Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. DVD Talk. October 20, 2009. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  23. Strong Medicine. Wikipedia. June 27, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  24. Nip/Tuck. Wikipedia. August 9, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  25. Private Practice (TV series). Wikipedia. August 9, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  26. Children's Hospital. Wikipedia. July 7, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  27. Hale M. Transplanting a twisted parody. New York Times. July 9, 2010. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  28. The Mob Doctor. Wikipedia. June 30, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  29. Emily Owens, M.D. Wikipedia. July 25, 2015.,_M.D. August 15, 2015.
  30. The Mindy Project. Wikipedia. August 13, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
  31. Yuan J. The new new girl: Mindy Kaling promotes herself out of The Office and Into The Mindy Project. Vulture. September 9, 2012. Accessed August 15. 2015.

Contributor Information

Neil Chesanow
Senior Editor
Medscape Business of Medicine


Close<< Medscape

From Gods to Antiheroes: Doctors on TV From 1950 to Present

Neil Chesanow   |  August 19, 2015

Swipe to advance
Slide 1

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Fictional TV Doctor

Fictional doctors as portrayed in television series have intrigued viewing audiences, scholars, and real doctors for over a half-century. In that time, they have undergone a curious devolution: from unassailable godlike figures; to noble but imperfect human beings; to countercultural antiheroes; to, in many cases, increasingly dysfunctional characters that nevertheless win fans among critics and viewers alike. What happened? Offering some perspective are:

Joseph Turow, PhD, Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power.[1]

Elliott B. Tapper, MD, a liver transplant specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston, and author of Doctors on Display: The Evolution of Television's Doctors.[2]

Neal A. Baer, MD, a Harvard-trained pediatrician and one of the original writers and executive producer of the hit doctor show ER, many episodes of which were based on Dr Baer's own experiences as a medical student and resident.

Image from Dreamstime

Slide 2

Medic (1954-1956)

The granddaddy of TV doctor shows, Medic was a quasi-educational docudrama that told suspenseful stories about diseases to illustrate medicine's latest advances.[2] A joint venture between NBC and the Los Angeles County Medical Association (displayed prominently in the closing credits to give the show an air of authority), Medic, as exemplified by its lead character Dr Konrad Styner (Richard Boone), portrayed doctors "as undeniably holy and the aims of medicine as unquestionably good," notes Dr Tapper.[2] To underscore the point, each 30-minute episode opened with these words of adulation: "Guardian of birth, healer of the sick, comforter of the aged, to the profession of medicine, to the men and women who labor in its cause, this story is dedicated."[2] Medic gripped 1950s viewers—although for only 2 years, which apparently was all they could take—with graphic realism.[3] It was the first show on television to depict, often in gory detail, such previously taboo subjects as a live human birth; treatments for cancer, cleft palate, alcoholism, and leprosy; and the consequences of a nuclear attack.[4]

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Slide 3

Dr. Kildare (1961-1966)

Medic, always about matters of life and death, "degenerated into 'insufferable melodrama'," observes Dr Tapper.[2] Five years later, Richard Chamberlain's portrayal of Dr James Kildare was the polar opposite of the godlike, incorruptible Konrad Styner: He introduced the character of the bumbling intern, a flawed human being whom the audience could relate to—giving birth to a character type that would reappear in St. Elsewhere, ER, Scrubs, Grey's Anatomy, and many future doctor shows. Dr Kildare was a heartthrob who fell in love with his patients (apparently generating interest among female viewers).[2] The one-dimensional Dr Styner morphs into the softer, kindlier mentor figure of Dr Richard Gillespie (Raymond Massey), another character type that would repeatedly recur in later shows, who informs Dr Kildare that "there's nothing special about being a doctor."[2] While Medic was all about the technology of medicine, in Dr. Kildare, Dr Tapper notes, the primary focus had shifted to the doctor and his process.

Image from Alamy

Slide 4

Ben Casey (1961-1966)

Ben Casey opened with the sonorously intoned words "Man … woman … birth … death … infinity," reflecting "that hallowed sense that producers and directors and actors had about the medical system, and the ability of doctors to really grapple with life and death and everything in between," observes Prof Turow.[5] "Ben Casey was emblematic of the kind of doctor show that was seen on television in the 1950s and '60s into the '70s, a program in which medicine was seen to be basically hospital-based and doctor-centered. There was no such thing as scarce resources, and the illnesses dealt with were essentially acute." Dr Casey (Vince Edwards) was the antithesis of the vulnerable, bumbling intern James Kildare. He was a neurosurgeon (in the public mind, the brainiest of doctors): brash, confident, and (of course) handsome, popular with women. "'Pulling a Ben Casey' even became part of the rounds lexicon for hot-headedness" among real doctors, notes Dr Tapper.[2] Ben Casey episodes, he told Medscape, "were given the full and public seal of approval by the American Medical Association, whose members helped to write the episodes."

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Slide 5

Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976)

Marcus Welby (Robert Young), the senior partner in a two-man family practice in California, was Hollywood's reaction to hospital-based doctor shows like Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare that were eventually deemed "too cerebral" and "over the heads of the masses," Prof Turow observes. With Welby, Dr Tapper notes, the emphasis on acute presentation of illness and the method and technology of diagnosis and treatment shifted to chronic disease and health maintenance, with the doctor-patient relationship coming to the fore.[2] No matter the human condition—wayward children, failing grades, pedophilia, substance abuse, or marital strife—Dr Welby addressed it with caring, compassion, and, by today's standards, a healthy dose of misogyny, although, as Prof Turow points out, "All those doctors were misogynists back then by today's standards." The show was a joint venture between ABC and the newly formed American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), which had a hand in script development.[2] It wasn't always a happy marriage. Many AAFP members were concerned that Welby was inflating public expectations of doctors, presenting them as too good to be true, according to the New York Times, leading patients to expect that their doctors had an unlimited amount of time to spend caring for their illnesses.[6]

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Slide 6

M*A*S*H (1972-1983)

M*A*S*H was a seismic break with TV doctor shows of the past. "The basic idea of acute, really gripping medicine doesn't change through the 1970s," Prof Turow reflects. "What does change is that all of a sudden, instead of patients being the focus, and the doctor solves the patients' problems—which was the crux of the issue in the Ben Casey-Dr. Kildare-Marcus Welby era—with M*A*S*H, it flips around, and the doctors are the ones with problems. Here you have these physicians in the middle of a war. It was the Korean War, but everyone really saw it as the Vietnam War. They're good doctors. They have to deal with emergency operations. But the focus isn't on the patients. The focus is on the pain the doctors feel, together with the humor that they have to survive with in order to be able to do their jobs."[5] Prof Turow elaborates: "The basic idea, [M*A*S*H creator] Larry Gelbart told me, was the notion of how doctors kept sane in an insane world. The people at the network realized that this had fundamentally changed the doctor show. There was a general sense at the time that the anthology format of the traditional doctor show was not nearly as powerful as having the main characters being the ones you followed emotionally."

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Slide 7

St. Elsewhere (1982-1988)

"The success of M*A*S*H led to a frenzied attempt by producers to figure out how they could recapture that magic," Prof Turow says. "Into the 1980s, the focus moved away from the patient to the physician, and increasingly you had dramas about yuppie physicians and their problems in the hospital, and many times patients were causing the doctors' problems." St. Elsewhere, set at fictional St. Eligius, a decaying urban teaching hospital in Boston,[7] was one of the first of this new breed of yuppie doctor–centric show. Going one step beyond M*A*S*H, this black medical comedy-drama portrayed the medical profession as admirable but flawed; the St. Eligius staff, while mostly well intended in serving patients, each had their own personal and professional problems. Adding to their frustration and misery, "they are battling an HMO named Ecumana," Dr Tapper says, one of the only doctor shows in which evils of managed care was a major theme. "In M*A*S*H, the doctors are battling against the war. In St. Elsewhere, through cost constraints and rationing, the doctors are often unable to do the right thing for a patient. It's the same idea but taken a little more literally."

Image from Alamy

Slide 8

Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-1993)

That doctors tend to be really smart people fascinates viewers. Doogie Howser took this fascination to its logical conclusion. A coming-of-age story, it portrayed a sweet teenager (Neil Patrick Harris), awkward around girls, who was a child genius. Doogie earned a perfect SAT score at age 6, completed 9 weeks of high school at age 9, graduated from Princeton a year later, and, when we first meet him at age 16, was America's youngest doctor.[8] In Doogie's boyish precocity, his desire to do right by patients, and his warm mentor relationship with his family doctor–father (James B. Sikking), Dr Tapper sees echoes of Dr. Kildare. "Looking back on the genre, it is clear that there was a direct path between M*A*S*H and ER through St. Elsewhere where Doogie Howser, M.D., was an outlier but not an aberration," he observes.[2] "Doogie was a popular program. Perhaps this was because of its positive representation of medicine, departing from the progressively darker iterations of its recent past," such as M*A*S*H and St. Elsewhere. "Doogie was a nice guy, a great guy, but he was also extraordinarily special in his competencies as a person," Prof Turow adds. "I think that's also what, week to week, we were told about medicine."

Image from Alamy

Slide 9

Chicago Hope (1994-2000)

Chicago Hope often seemed—or tried—to go St. Elsewhere one better, cranking up the soap opera–like medical drama into often lurid medical melodrama. (In one particularly gruesome episode, macho cardiothoracic surgeon Billy Kronk [Peter Berg] amputates a man's injured leg at an accident site with a chainsaw.)[9] However, the series was redeemed, as Prof Turow sees it, by "good acting" and "some breakthrough plots about the relationship between medicine and cost-containment," a subject virtually nonexistent in most doctor shows (see especially House). Set in a fictional private charity hospital, the ensemble cast included Dr Jeffrey Geiger (Mandy Patinkin), a brilliant but emotionally troubled surgeon; Dr Aaron Schutt (Adam Arkin), his best friend and a world-renowned neurosurgeon; and Dr Daniel Nyland (Thomas Gibson), a womanizing emergency medicine doctor.[9,10]

Image from Alamy

Slide 10

ER (1994-2009)

Many consider ER the most influential doctor show in TV history. Michael Crichton, a Harvard-trained physician, wrote the show's original script circa 1969 while still in medical school, and it remained unproduced for 25 years. Dr Baer, then a fourth-year Harvard medical student, helped bring it to life. "ER was the first show to have real doctors writing the show," he says. "Previously, doctor shows were written by writers, and then doctors were brought in as consultants to sprinkle the medicine on top like powdered sugar. But ER was soaked in medicine from the ground up. It didn't matter if the audience didn't understand what a CBC chem without contrast was. They kind of got it. They loved the veracity of it, and they loved the ethical dilemmas that we brought to the show that came out of my own dilemmas as a medical student and resident, or out of the many interviews we did with house staff, medical students, attendings, nurses, and leading authorities in their fields. As a result, there are no medical shows now without doctors on staff. You can't do that kind of half-medicine/half-not show anymore, because ER broke the boundaries of the doctor show."

Image from Alamy

Slide 11

Scrubs (2001-2010)

In 1978, the bestselling The House of God was published. "Raunchy, troubling, and hilarious," as the New York Times put it, this satirical novel portrayed the psychological harm done to interns, based on a psychiatrist's often dehumanizing experiences at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Hospital.[11] "Devoured by a legion of medical students, interns, residents and doctors,"[11] it first spawned the hit TV series St. Elsewhere, "and later some stories in the book were directly turned into episodes of the TV show Scrubs," says Dr Tapper.[2] "Multiple times in the history of the TV doctor show, the same antiestablishment perspective was being portrayed," he adds. "Scrubs was one of them." Scrubs followed the lives of employees at the fictional Sacred Heart teaching hospital.[12] The main characters were mostly interns. "If you look past the cartoonishness, you find a series that's quite in tune with the real lives of doctors—and unlike your typical medical drama, one that's not required to end each episode with a climactic surgical procedure or whiz-bang diagnosis," noted the online journal Slate.[13] "ER, for instance, was about the heroic things doctors do to save lives, and every episode was rife with calamity. Scrubs, on the other hand, is mostly about what happens at hospitals between crises—the way doctors and nurses handle ordinary cases. And doctors say that as a depiction of the residency process, the show hits strikingly familiar emotional notes."

Image from Alamy

Slide 12

House (2004-2012)

With the exception of sweet Doogie Howser, from M*A*S*H to St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope, and ER, doctors on TV were becoming increasingly more dysfunctional, but none was as epically dysfunctional as the brilliant, misanthropic, possibly autistic, drug-addicted nephrologist and infectious disease specialist Dr Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), whose character was closely modeled on Sherlock Holmes (both were drug addicts; both employed convoluted deductive reasoning; both were indifferent to their patients/clients; both played musical instruments; both had sidekicks). For House, the key diagnostic insight is: "Everybody lies."[14] Learning what information the patient is withholding is the key to the cure. While many doctors loathed Dr House and the way the show portrayed medicine, viewers loved him. "Central to House is the diagnosis," Dr Tapper notes.[2] "After all, he is the chair of 'diagnostic medicine.' More than one patient has barked an order to 'diagnose me!' One patient with neurological symptoms even defected from Cuba in a rubber boat for a diagnosis from Dr House. Another patient, frustrated with waiting times, took hostages in the clinic at gunpoint demanding a diagnosis." But what a leap from Dr Welby, who gave the impression that a doctor could devote all day to a single patient, to Dr House, who "communicates directly with diseases instead of patients."[15]

Image from Alamy

Slide 13

Grey's Anatomy (2005-Present)

Grey's Anatomy is a romantic drama about the lives and loves (mostly the latter) of surgical interns and residents at a fictional Seattle hospital. Said the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes, "It's really a relationship show with surgery in it."[2] "It's over the top," admits Prof Turow. "It probably gives viewers incredibly strange notions of what goes on sexually in hospitals among residents and even attendings. But it did and does find some very odd examples of medical problems to deal with that are sometimes quite graphic. [One episode, for example, was devoted to a fecal transplant for refractory Clostridium difficile colitis.[2]] In that sense, it tries to draw people's attention to medicine." "Grey's is very much a show about medicine," Dr Tapper asserts, "beloved as such by millions of people, medical and premedical students included." Role models, however, the characters aren't. The doctors in Grey's resemble Dr House in their attitude toward patients. "Patients are not vulnerable people with diseases," Dr Tapper writes.[2] "They are diseases … In House and Grey's, we have today a total severance of the patient-doctor relationship into once more but now toxic one-dimensional representations."

Image from Rex Features

Slide 14

Other Notable TV Doctor Shows (1969-1986)

Medical Center (1969-1976)

Contemporaneous with Marcus Welby, M.D., Medical Center, starring heartthrob Chad Everett as Dr Joe Gannon, a young, ambitious surgeon, continued the tradition of Medic-Dr. Kildare-Ben Casey in that it was hospital-based.[16] Like Marcus Welby, M.D., which touted its AAFP imprimatur, the show set great store by its medical accuracy. "We were medically correct; we were required viewing for a lot of schools of nursing," Chad Everett once said in an interview. "Never did we not have at least one technical advisor, and usually two or three depending on the equipment we were using and the procedures we were involved with."[17]

Quincy, M.E. (1976-1983)

Quincy was perhaps the first in a long line of TV doctor shows, culminating (to date) with House, that was based on the detective story.[18] In the series, Quincy (played by Jack Klugman), a strong-willed, principled medical examiner (forensic pathologist) with the LAPD, unraveled the mysteries of suspicious deaths. Early seasons focused on finding the real murderer. Later seasons shifted to social responsibility—for example, drunk driving laws, airline safety issues, and hazardous waste.

Trapper John, M.D. (1979-1986)

"Trapper" John McIntyre (Pernell Roberts) first appeared as a character on M*A*S*H.[19] Trapper John the series was an attempt to capitalize on M*A*S*H's popularity, "but it never had the satirical biting nature of M*A*S*H," Prof Turow says. "It was a rather traditional program that pretended to transfer M*A*S*H into a city hospital [San Francisco Memorial]. It was a kind of waystation on the way to St. Elsewhere."

Pictured: Quincy, M.E.

Image from Alamy

Slide 15

Other Notable TV Doctor Shows (1986-2006)

Kay O'Brien (1986-1987)

Set in a New York hospital, surgeon Kay "Kayo" O'Brien (Patricia Kalember) is significant for being perhaps the first TV doctor show with a woman in the lead role. "She is intended to embody some of the more pressing feminist issues of the day," wrote the New York Times in 1986.[20] "The key points are constantly being spelled out … 'There are 75 surgeons here. You gotta be better than any of them. It ain't right. It ain't fair. But that's the way it is.'"

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1998)

Six years after "Kayo," another TV doctor show with a feministic bent featured a woman in the lead role, this time a wealthy Boston Brahmin, Michaela "Dr Mike" Quinn (Jane Seymour), who moved to the small town of Colorado Springs in 1867 to convince the townspeople that a female doctor could successfully practice medicine and, in the process, inculcate feminist liberal values in a parade of unsavory chauvinistic characters in the Wild West.[21,22]

Strong Medicine (2000-2006)

Another medical drama with a focus on feminist politics, what sets Strong Medicine apart, notes Prof Turow, is that it takes place in a free clinic in inner-city Philadelphia, and one of its lead characters, Dr Luisa "Lu" Delgado (Rosa Blasi), is Latina. Her partner, Dr Dana Stowe (Janine Turner), is a top female health specialist with affluent patients.[23] The mix of racially, politically, and economically diverse patients gave the show its frisson.

Pictured: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman

Image from Alamy

Slide 16

Other Notable TV Doctor Shows (2003-Present)

Nip/Tuck (2003-2010)

The only TV doctor show to focus on plastic surgeons—in this case Drs Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Christian Troy (Julian McMahon)—each episode of Nip/Tuck featured graphic glimpses of the doctors performing such procedures as breast augmentations, "vaginal rejuvenation," and removal of obscure skin diseases, in between being seduced by beautiful women on a daily basis.[24] "Yes, it was salacious," concedes Prof Turow, "but it was in many ways also about the pros and cons—and sometimes the ethics—of cosmetic surgery."

Private Practice (2007-2013)

Much as Marcus Welby shifted the doctor-doctor drama of hospital-based shows to the doctor-patient drama of outpatient practice, Private Practice, a Grey's Anatomy spinoff, shifted the drama from Seattle Grace Hospital to a more intimate setting, as Dr Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh), a character on Grey's, joined Seaside Wellness Center in Los Angeles, where she, her new coworkers, and how they dealt with patients became the focus.[25]

Childrens Hospital (2008-present)

Proof of the TV doctor show's enduring popularity is Hollywood's willingness to mine every conceivable vein, as evidenced by Childrens Hospital, a satirical comedy that spoofs the medical drama genre, and whose first 10 episodes, each approximately 5 minutes in length, aired on the Web.[26] The characters speak for themselves. Dr Blake Downs (Rob Corddry), for example, performs surgery in clown makeup. Yarmulke-clad Dr Glenn Ritchie (Ken Marino) is the hospital playboy. Dr Cat Black (Lake Bell) has a thing for her roommate, Dr Lola Spratt (Erinn Hayes). In 2010, the New York Times called it "a twisted parody" and "an alternately surreal and raunchy mélange of situations and jokes involving sex, body parts, sex, children, Sept. 11, Puerto Rican midgets and sex."[27]

Pictured: Nip/Tuck

Image from Rex Features

Slide 17

Other Notable TV Doctor Shows (2012-Present)

The Mob Doctor (2012-2013)

This dramatic series followed surgical resident Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro), who juggles her hospital duties while agreeing to pay off her brother's debt to the mob, or do whatever she was asked to do to save her brother's life, including (depending on the episode), treat a hit-and-run driver who killed a young child, and end the life of a convict who faked an illness to give his heart to an estranged daughter who needs a transplant.[28]

Emily Owens, M.D. (2012-2013)

In Doogie Howser, M.D., we had a high school–age doctor. In Emily Owens, M.D., a young doctor (played by Mamie Gummer) realizes that working as an intern in a big hospital (Denver Memorial) is very much like being in high school. While Emily finally feels like a grown-up, relieved to put her high school days behind her, she discovers that her high school nemesis, the beautiful, manipulative Cassandra Kopelson (Aja Naomi King) is a fellow intern at the hospital, and that there are cliques—jocks, mean girls, slackers—just like in you-know-where.[29]

The Mindy Project (2012-present)

The Mindy Project broke new ground diversity-wise in that its lead character, ob/gyn Mindy Lahiri (played by the show's creator, Mindy Kaling), is of Indian descent. (While Kaling was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her architect father is Tamil and her ob/gyn mother, on whom she based the show, is Bengali.[30]) This romantic comedy is set in a small medical practice in New York. Mindy is a smart, successful doctor, but when it comes to finding true love, she's still a work in progress.[30,31]

Pictured: The Mindy Project

Image from Rex Features

< Previous Next >
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn