TV’s Greatest: Doctors

Which physician reigns supreme?

Who is TV's Greatest Doctor?

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The Saturday Evening Post’s TV’s Greatest” series is an ongoing look at the greatest characters, songs, and moments in the history of TV. Also see TV’s Greatest: Best “Best Friends,” “TV’s Greatest: The 20 Best Supernatural Detectives,” and “TV’s Greatest: Lawyers.”

Nobody likes going to the doctor, but America loves watching doctors. From the earliest days of television, medical shows have stood out, giving us characters that exhibit great life-saving skill. Though their personalities vary wildly, including empaths, comedians, and outright misanthropes, they do their best to solve the medical crisis of the week. From space in the future to downtown Chicago, here are TV’s Greatest Doctors.

Note: this list is about regular doctors; crime-solving doctors like Gil Grissom and Quincy must wait for another day.

15. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox)

Lost (2004-2010)
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From the very beginning of the outstanding pilot of Lost, our point-of-view character is Dr. Jack Shephard. The series literally starts with him opening his eyes as he awakes from a plane crash. Though he’s a spinal surgeon by vocation, Jack immediately takes charge of the crash site, working to save as many of the wounded as he can while tending to an expecting mother and other emergencies before he treats his own injuries. Over the course of the series, Jack becomes leader of the survivors and constantly works against a lack of proper equipment to treat the group. His defining ethos is protecting the community, typified by his statement, “If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.”

14. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore)

The Good Doctor (2017-present)

Shaun Murphy has a breakthrough. (Uploaded to YouTube by ABC)

The newest doctor on the list, Shaun Murphy is a surgical resident. While his autism and savant syndrome contribute to his nearly super-human recall and an intense focus on easily missed, but significant, details, Murphy has frequently had to fight against labels and stigmas while trying to be the best doctor he can be. In fact, it took televised heroics to even get him a chance at being hired. Nevertheless, he’s continued to be a stand-out physician even as he’s had to work harder on relating to his various patients and co-workers.

13. Sam Abrams and Isidore Latham (Brennan Brown and Ato Essandoh)

Chicago Med (2015-present)
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Admittedly the most unusual picks on the list, Abrams and Latham land here because they’re better than just about everyone else. Abrams would even tell you. The arrogant but hilarious neurospecialist and eternally curious cardiologist are the guys that get called in to solve the biggest problems. While the regulars are having messy personal lives and regularly violating ethics codes, Abrams and Latham just do the job. While neither one is a regular cast member, any appearance by either immediately improves the episode. They’ve even occasionally gotten highlight stories, like the comedic plot in which the staff meets Abrams’s much more attractive wife, or the heartfelt good-bye from Latham to his departing friend, Dr. Rhodes. Bench players can be MVPs, too.

12. Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris)

Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-1993)
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A child prodigy with a photographic memory, Douglas “Doogie” Howser decides to become a doctor after two bouts with pediatric leukemia. Doogie balances the demands of his job with the struggle of trying to occasionally be a normal teenager. The show comes from TV uber-creators Stephen Bochco and David E. Kelley, which means that it analyzes a number of social dilemmas that contribute to Doogie’s ongoing maturation. It’s clear that Doogie knows a lot about medicine, but what he learns from people week-to-week contributes to his development as a whole person.

11. Michaela Quinn (Jane Seymour)

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1998, plus TV movies in 1999 and 2001)
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Like Jack Shephard, Dr. Michaela Quinn has to deal with having limited resources and equipment that isn’t always up to the task. In her case, however, it’s because it’s the 1800s. Quinn also has to contend with frontier sexism, as the people of Colorado Springs are occasionally baffled at the very notion of a woman being a doctor. Quinn’s enlightened ways also extend to her frequently grappling with issues like the locals’ hostility to things like nearby Native Americans and, well, books. (Seriously, in one episode, she makes a library for the town and they freak out and burn most of it.) Nevertheless, Dr. Quinn persists and regularly saves lives with her vast reservoir of knowledge.

10. James Kildare (Richard Chamberlain)

Dr. Kildare (1961-1966)
Richard Chamberlain in 1964 (Photo by MGM TV via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

Today you learned: Dr. Kildare was a multimedia franchise that started in the 1930s. Created by Frederick Schiller Faust, aka Max Brand, Kildare first appeared in pulpy magazine stories before moving into film, radio, newspaper strips, and comic books. At the movies, Kildare was steady business, with 10 films between 1937 and 1942 and a six-film Dr. Gillespie spin-off series. On TV, Kildare was the role that made Richard Chamberlain a star. The series emphasizes the diagnostician side of Kildare as opposed to the crime-solving side of the earlier films. Toward the end of the run, the show begins to work more on overall continuity with multi-episode stories, a departure from TV at the time. it is also unusual in that the show went from 60 minutes to 30 minute episodes in its final season. Kildare often grapples with of-the-moment medical cases, brought to the series by the research of original show writer E. Jack Neuman. Crazy side-note, related in Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing by Tom Stempel: President Lyndon Johnson wanted the show to cover venereal disease as a teaching opportunity, but that episode never happened because NBC said no; it’s the only time that NBC outranked a U.S. President.

9. Percival Ulysses “Perry” Cox (John C. McGinley)

Scrubs (2001-2010)
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Dr. Cox is part of a long and noble TV medical tradition of mentor figures who are brilliant but abrasive, sincere but brutally honest, and caring but often downright insulting. Regardless, Cox becomes a beloved character because, despite his quirks (calling J.D. Dorian any number of girls’ names, hating Hugh Jackman), he truly cares for his patients and the doctors working under him. A measure of Cox’s devotion to patient care could be seen in his resistance to promotions and the fact that he continues to work in the hospital while also teaching in the classroom. He’s also not the most verbally abusive doctor on this list (hang in there for #4).

8. Ben Casey (Vince Edwards)

Ben Casey (1961-1966); Breaking Point (1963, one episode); The Return of Ben Casey (1988 TV Movie)
Vince Edwards as Ben Casey (Photo by Leigh Wiener for ABC Television via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

Vince Edwards played neurosurgeon Ben Casey with a steely intensity that would see him nominated for an Emmy during the first season. Casey is another in a long line of idealistic problem solvers. The show drew attention for guest-stars like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Stella Stevens, and was popular enough to generate a spin-off (the psychiatric series Breaking Point) and tie-in novels and comics. Casey guested on the first episode of Breaking Point, which featured characters that had debuted on the Casey program. Over 20 years after the show ended, Edwards reprised his role for a syndicated TV film.

7. Marcus Welby (Robert Young)

Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976); Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law (two episodes, 1971, 1974); two TV movies (1984, 1988).
Robert Young as Marcus Welby (Photo by ABC Television via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

Robert Young was already a beloved TV figure from Father Knows Best. But transferring his kind manner to a doctor that actually does house calls? Marcus Welby, M.D. was at the top of the ratings in no time and earned Emmys for him and co-star James Brolin (whom the Post interviewed in 2020). The series had every script vetted by the American Academy of Family Physicians and tried to apply the best information at the time to a variety of stories, including sensitive topics like depression and Alzheimer’s disease. The show also flipped the dynamic seen in many other medical shows by having the older Welby play the maverick with unusual treatment ideas versus Kiley’s (Brolin) more by-the-book approach. Both Young and Brolin appeared on the legal spin-off, Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law. Young later returned to the role for a pair of TV movies.

6. Mark Craig (William Daniels)

St. Elsewhere (1982-1988)
William Daniels (with wife/co-star Bonnie Bartlett) (Photo by Alan Light via Wikimedia Commons; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

It’s not often that a TV star can juggle two series simultaneously. Heather Locklear did it in the ’80s, pulling double-duty on Dynasty and T.J. Hooker. At roughly the same time, William Daniels had regular roles in two huge NBC hits: Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere and the voice of K.I.T.T. on Knight Rider. Daniels’s Craig may have been the turning point at which every caring, gentle physician was balanced out by a sarcastic, egocentric surgeon. Craig talks down to everyone, and yet because he’s a genius heart surgeon, it only makes him more popular. Daniels won two Emmys for the role. Though the series was a true ensemble, it’s a matter of record that Daniels appeared in more episodes of the show than any other actor.

5. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley)

Star Trek (1966-1969); Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987); six Star Trek feature films
Dr. Leonard McCoy (Photo by NBC Television via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

A true measure of a TV icon is that when you read their name, you hear their voice. And it’s likely that when you read McCoy, your head echoes with “He’s dead, Jim!” or some variation of “Damn it, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a [insert profession].” The grand irony of Kelley’s life is that he originally wanted to be a doctor, but he and his family couldn’t afford the schooling; instead, he shifted his talents to stage and screen and won the role of a lifetime with McCoy. A brilliant diagnostician that contends with any manner of alien afflictions, McCoy is mostly remembered for his personality, notably his emotional clashes with the dispassionate and logical Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). McCoy appeared in the first six Star Trek films and was the first member of the original cast to appear in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

4. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie)

House (alternately titled House, M.D.; 2004-2012)

House at work (Uploaded to YouTube by House M.D.)

If there’s a world record for “TV series with greatest use of the word misanthrope in its reviews,” it would certainly go to House. Gregory House is that and every other version of irritable and insulting throughout his eight season run, but American loved it. The show basically operates on the principle of “What if Sherlock Holmes solved diagnoses instead of crimes?” In fact, the Holmes references run deep, from the character’s drug abuse on down to his address (221B). House’s team members are essentially all Watson, giving him characters to explain things to and berate in equal measure. Laurie earned a wheelbarrow-full of awards for the character, including two Golden Globes and two SAGs in addition to six Emmy nominations.

3. The Staff of Seattle Grace/Seattle Grace Mercy West/Grey Sloane Memorial

Grey’s Anatomy (2005-wait, it’s still on? Seriously?) plus crossovers with Private Practice, Station 19, and Grey’s Anatomy: B-Team.
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It’s hard to separate out the best of the best when nearly every doctor at one hospital is among the best in their field in the nation. So here’s a countdown within a countdown: 4. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson); 3. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo); 2. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey); and 1. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh). Cristina Yang takes the top spot because of her absolute no-nonsense approach to everything. She doesn’t suffer fools and she knows that she’s the best in any operating room. Amazingly, despite her arrogance, she builds a lasting friendship with her closest competition, Meredith Grey. Though Yang departed after 10 seasons, Oh’s galvanizing portrayal made the character so memorable that you still wonder what she’s doing offscreen.

2. The Staff of Cook County General

ER (1994-2009)
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Like Grey’s Anatomy, the ensemble is so vast and so likeable to that it’s hard to narrow down the peak. But there are a three clear contenders: Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle); Doug Ross (George Clooney); and Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards). Benton is the genius with questionable interpersonal communication. Pediatrician Ross has messy relationships but would risk his life to save children in jeopardy. And Greene is the moral center, always trying to do his best while holding everyone else together. The heavily-awarded Edwards drew a tremendous amount attention for the first season episode, “Love’s Labor Lost,” in which Greene’s treatment of a problem pregnancy goes horribly wrong; TV Guide has twice ranked it in their top 10 of the Greatest TV Episodes of All Time. In Edwards’s performance, you feel the toll that it takes on a doctor when best intentions go astray.

1. Hawkeye Pierce of The 4077th

M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
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The doctors of the 4077th contend daily with man’s inhumanity to man. They frequently note the absurdity of trying to save lives in the middle of a literal warzone. And no doctor typifies the combination of skill, humanity, and questioning of the human condition better than Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda). Irreverent, incorrigible, and womanizing, Pierce flouts the regulations with glee. He has little respect for authority (except for, of course, Colonel Sherman Potter), and struggles daily with how people could wage war. And yet, he is steely and determined when it comes to saving lives. He makes jokes in the operating room, but his commitment never wavers. For his talent, dedication, and constant search for meaning, Hawkeye Pierce is TV’s Greatest Doctor.

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Comments

  1. Frontier Doctor barely lasted 10 months. The show today has almost zero cultural footprint. The DVD release from 2010 has sales rank in Amazon’s TV category of around 151,000, which puts it 145,000 places behind the $200 Gunsmoke! Complete Series boxed set.

    As for Doc Adams, in my assessment, he didn’t make the cut. Feel free to assume he’s number 16, but I wouldn’t put him over anyone here.

  2. Unbelievable! How could you leave out Doc Adams in Gunsmoke, played by Milburn Stone and Dr. Baxter in the Frontier Doctor played by Rex Allen?

  3. Not separating comedy from drama, I have to agree on Alan Alda too. After him, Jane Seymour with all she had to contend with, not the least of which was being a woman/female doctor in times even more unenlightened than our own.

    After her, probably Robert Young, Vince Edwards and Matthew Fox, even though ‘Lost’ was a show I wisely dumped early on. His portrayal of Dr. Jack Shephard was excellent, no question about it.

  4. I can give myself an award for cluelessness: I’m a lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan and yet I didn’t catch at first that Dr. House was patterned after Holmes (right down to his initials!) Holmes’ creator WAS Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle, after all!

  5. What a great roundup of all the acting doctors! Yes, Hawkeye gets my vote for Top Doc, but looking at the others, I remember some super performances and wonderful characters. Thanks for the memories.

  6. Funny as I read the title to this article the first “doctor” I thought of was Hawkeye and as I read down the list started to become increasingly aggravated that he wasn’t on here. Until the end… well done Writers/collaborators, well done.

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