It’s cold and flu season once again, and that got Mister Boomer thinking about how doctors were portrayed on TV — and thought of in real life — during our early years. Five decades have made quite a difference. Perhaps our TV shows have best reflected the contrasts across the years.
In the 1960s and ’70s, TV doctors were fatherly figures: all-knowing, authoritative and supremely confident. They cheerfully made house calls at any time of the day or night in crisp suits and ties. They not only had the perfect remedy for whatever ailed you, their bedside manner put you at ease and taught you a life lesson in the process. Take the shows Ben Casey, Marcus Welby, M.D. and Dr. Kildare as examples.
Ben Casey starred Vince Edwards as the young Dr. Casey. Each week the the show would open with the camera focused on the hand of Dr. Zorba (Sam Jaffe, channeling his best Albert Einstein hair) writing symbols on a blackboard. As the sounds of the chalk scratched across the board, he would voice the name of each symbol he drew: man, woman, birth, death, infinity. In other words, the opening summarized the lofty stuff doctors were dealing with on a daily basis. The show ran from 1961 to 1965.
Dr. Casey was a young resident neurosurgeon at County General Hospital, and Dr. Zorba was his mentor. Dr. Casey didn’t always follow the rules, but he got results — and that meant saving lives. In the process, he earned the respect of his patients and co-workers.
Dr. Kildare (Richard Chamberlain) ran from 1961 to 1966. The series actually had its origins as a series of films in the 1930s and ’40s, then as a radio show in the ’50s, before appearing on TV screens. Similar to Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare focused on the relationship between the young doctor and his much older mentor, Dr. Gillespie (Raymond Massey). Like Dr, Casey, Dr. Kildare didn’t mind meddling in a patient’s life if he felt he needed to teach a life lesson.
Marcus Welby, M.D. was another immensely popular medical drama that ran from 1969 to 1976. Unlike the other two shows, Dr. Welby (played by Robert Young) was a general practitioner, so house calls were a regular part of the show. In this younger doctor/older doctor scenario, Dr. Welby was the old sage and Dr. Steven Kiley (James Brolin) was the younger protege. The show flipped the relationship of mentor and younger colleague, since Dr. Welby was the one who had the “progressive” bedside manner, showing his protege that in an age of modern technological and medical breakthroughs, patients were individuals with individual needs that physicians should take into account. For many boomers, it was hard not to think of Father Knows Best when looking at Dr. Welby: the character was very much the smiling, wise, fatherly figure Robert Young had portrayed in the earlier series.
Compare these shows with the medical dramas of today. While they have many similarities — mentor/protege and doctor-knows-best attitudes, for example — House and Grey’s Anatomy are current shows that play on the foundation set by shows of yore. Today the TV doctors are portrayed as brilliant but arrogant, self-centered rather than altruistic, brooding instead of smiling, oversexed rather than composed and socially in-step, mistake-laden rather than perfect, and all-too human.
On House M.D. (currently called House), the brilliant Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) is the antithesis of Drs. Casey, Kildare and Welby. The antisocial Dr. House would prefer not to speak to his patients at all, so when he does his demeanor is abrasive and acerbic, yet always honest. He stops at nothing to solve a diagnostic case, armed only with his wit and team of adoring young proteges. Since Dr. House insists he is always right, it infuriates his superiors that he flaunts the rules yet IS always right. In last season’s episodes, we learned about Dr. House’s personal life, including a love interest and that he was addicted to narcotics as a result of an injury in his early years that left him walking with a cane (due to a misdiagnosis, no less), which explains the character’s disability. The show began its run in 2004 and continues today.
Unlike the other medical dramas we’ve mentioned, Grey’s Anatomy features an ensemble cast (starring Ellen Pompeo as Dr. Meredith Grey and Patrick Dempsey as Dr. Derek Shepherd, among the many other distinguished actors) as the show explores the personal and professional lives of surgical interns at fictional Seattle Grace Hospital. The show began its run in 2005 and continues today. Grey’s Anatomy is filled with the stuff melodramas are made of: suffering, anger, pride, lust, envy and retribution. At one point or another, all of the characters have had sexual encounters with one or more of the other characters — something that would not have been possible in 1960s TV. While the doctors dole out their share of ego-puffing “I told you so’s,” the characters are often the ones who end up being taught a lesson.
Mister Boomer’s mother absolutely loved Vince Edwards, so every week Dr. Casey won out over Dr. Kildare, seeing as the shows were aired at the same time. As was the custom of the era, there was only one TV in the house — so Ben Casey it would be for Mister B and his siblings, in all its black and white glory. She also loved Dr. Welby, but Mister B wasn’t as enthused. A quick exit to his desk in his bedroom to study and read would replace his family viewing time.
In Mister Boomer’s family, as with many boomer families, “preventative medicine” wasn’t a term that held sway. Doctors were called or visited only when there was an acute need. Consequently, doctors weren’t high on the likability list for Mister B and his siblings. Unlike the TV shows, it was almost as if treatments had to hurt to be effective. Then, of course, there were the dreaded moments when Mister B or his sister would have to get a shot in the arm (usually penicillin) for flu or one of a million unnamed viruses. Brother Boomer took great pleasure in making sure he touched, bumped or otherwise hit “the shot arm.”
Occasionally, a doctor did come to Mister Boomer’s house. Mister B recalls the man always wore an overcoat and hat, and carried his leather medical bag like a professional version of Felix the Cat. When he removed the outerwear he had a white shirt with a black tie, and immediately reached into his bag of tricks for his stethoscope. He would never speak directly to a child unless it was a command like, “Say a-a-a-h-h-h,” instead addressing all comments to Mister B’s mother. Hardly the stuff TV doctors were made of.
In early boomer days, a patient didn’t question whatever a doctor said. While today people still expect their doctors to know all the answers, they also expect to be more involved in their treatment options.
What role did doctors — and medical dramas on TV — play in your family, boomers?