The Emergency Medicine Delivered by Hawkeye and Hot Lips Was
Always the Bestand Walter Dishell Was There on the TV
Battlefield to Make Sure of It
Walter D. Dishell (M.D.
1964) shows actor Alan
Alda how to properly hold a Deever retractor for an episode
of the hugely popular M*A*S*H television series in
the early 1970s, filmed on
Stage #9 of the 20th Century Fox Studios in Hollywood, California.
Few physicians understand the dramatic and episodic appeal
of emergency medicine better than Walter Dishell (M.D. 1964).
For over 11 years and more than 250 shows, Dishell served as
the medical adviser to the popular television series M*A*S*H,
which, as aficionados of medicine and the military know, stands
for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
Whether he was showing Alan Alda (Captain Benjamin Franklin
Hawkeye Pierce) how to hold a scalpel or telling
Loretta Swit (Major Margaret Hot Lips Houlihan)
how to pronounce carotid (caROTid, not CARotid),
or making sure that an IV was in the proper position, Walt Dishell
was on the set to make sure the medicine the TV viewer would
eventually see was authentic, to make sure, as he puts it, that
the right doctors were doing the right things.
A facial plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, California, for the
past 30 years, Dishell first began using his medical background
in the entertainment industry when he was asked to be a medical
adviser to a CBS production in the 1960s entitled Medical
Center soon after completing his residency in plastic surgery
at UCLA. Like the earliest TV medical shows, including Ben
Casey and then Marcus Welby, M.D., it focused on
physician-patient relationships rather than on the medicine
itself. The disease itself didnt matter, Dishell
recalls. They would give me a dramatic story and then
I would build the medicine around it.
All that changed with the highly successful M*A*S*H,
also a CBS production, which first aired in the fall of 1972.
It was the first of the emergency shows, Dishell
says. Everything was acute; there was always an injury
that had to be taken care of right away.
Because it was set during the Korean War, which took place
in the early 1950s, one of the challenges Dishell faced was
always making sure that the medicine Alan Alda and his fellow
actors and actresses practiced was not too advanced. I
remember they wanted to do a story on cortisone, but I had to
tell them that it hadnt been invented yet, Dishell
says. He consulted medical textbooks from the 1950s and professional
publications like the Journal of War Surgery to ensure
the shows historical accuracy.
Before the 1990s, television audiences wouldnt tolerate
the high-tech, bloody verisimilitude of todays emergency
room shows, Dishell says. In the early M*A*S*H
shows they wouldnt let us show any blood on the surgical
gloves or on the gowns, he says. Influences like
MTV, the Internet, plus changes in medicine itself have made
a difference in what people are willing to tolerate. The public
is not as squeamish as it used to be. Now you can watch an actual
face lift or heart transplant being televised.
For Dishell himself, who loved the character-centered drama
of Medical Center and M*A*S*H, todays emergency
room shows hold little appeal. Im not a big TV fan
at this point, he says. The emergency shows are
too technology-oriented. And the patients never seem to leave
the emergency room. Technology was never much of an issue
for Dishell on the M*A*S*H episodes he oversaw; on the
battlefield in the early 1950s there wasnt a great deal
of it. There was a lot of surgery on M*A*S*H, but
it was low-tech because of the time and the place, he
When it comes to the real world, though, Dishell welcomes emergency
medicines coming of age. When I was in the Air Force,
I was an ENT guy in the emergency room, he says. There
used to be specialists of every kind in the ER, but they wouldnt
always be familiar with the kinds of situations they were asked
to deal with. It makes a lot more sense to have physicians in
there who are familiar with the acute MIs (myocardial infarctions),
the fractures, the things you see there again and again.
While Alan Alda will always be his favorite surgeon and will
always be remembered for a bedside manner worthy of many an
acting award, Dishell says hes happy to know that if he
needed the services of a real emergency department himself,
the real doctors and nurses there would be especially trained
to meet his real-life needs.
for the 90s: Emergency Medicine Comes of Age and Gains New Visibility
in the Medical School
of Progress in Emergency Medicine.
Medicine Research: The Goal is Always Fewer Emergencies
Little Ones Hurt