We Heart Nurses! Celebrating Classic TV’s Most Beloved Female Medics

TV Nurses Collage
Courtesy Everett Collection

When it comes to television, nursing is among the oldest professions, along with the doctor, the cop and the cowboy. Medical shows have long been a TV staple. The first, City Hospital, premiered in 1951. And while Julia Baker, Consuelo Lopez and Carol Hathaway may not have the name recognition of James Kildare and Ben Casey, these and other of TV’s most memorable nurses are just what the doctor ordered when it comes to embodying the qualities that portrayed their profession in the most positive light.

TV Nurse Pioneers

JULIA, Diahann Carroll, Lloyd Nolan, Marc Copage, 1968-71,

Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Let’s start with the pioneers. Ella Raines starred as Janet Dean, Registered Nurse (1954-55), considered to be the first TV series whose main character was a nurse. Dean, a private duty nurse, traveled the country administering to those in need. One of TV’s longest-tenured nurses was gruff but compassionate Lucille “Sarge” March on General Hospital. Lucille Wall portrayed this iconic character from 1963-76, and then again in 1982. In the mid 1970s, she was honored with a special Emmy.

In Julia (1968-71), Diahann Carroll was the first African-American woman to play a lead non-domestic character in a TV series. Julia Baker was a middle-class single mother who was hired by the crusty Dr. Chegley (Lloyd Nolan), for whom race was not an issue.

MARCUS WELBY, M.D., from left, Elena Verdugo, Robert Young, 1969-76 (1971 photo).

Cyril Maitland/TV Guide/courtesy Everett Collection

Elena Verdugo held her own with Robert Young’s Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-76) as office assistant and nurse Consuelo Lopez, a character said to be the first working-class professional Latina on a TV series. When real working-class women complained because their bosses expected them to pour coffee just like Lopez did, Verdugo became a hero as she cut back on the coffee pouring.

Another groundbreaking character was head nurse Helen Rosenthal on St. Elsewhere (1982-88). Five-time Emmy nominee Christina Pickles portrayed Rosenthal, one of the ensemble’s most popular characters, who, in the series’ final season, was the first medical professional on TV to struggle with a drug addiction.

E.R., Julianna Margulies, Season 5, 1998. 1994-2009.

NBC/Courtesy: Everett Collection.

The gritty St. Elsewhere paved the way for ER (1994-2009) and Carol Hathaway, the emergency room nurse manager portrayed by Emmy winner Julianna Margulies (pictured above). Her initially suicidal character was not intended to survive the pilot episode, but she tested so well with audiences, she was spared.

EMERGENCY!, Julie London, 1972-77

But if you really needed someone to tend to you in an emergency, call Dixie McCall, portrayed by torch singer Julie “Cry Me a River” London on Emergency! (1972-77), the pioneering series about a paramedic rescue unit.

TV Nurses in the line of duty

CHINA BEACH, Dana Delaney, 1988-91

Everett Collection

Two of the most decorated nurses on television were two-time Emmy winners Dana Delany (pictured above) as Colleen McMurphy in the Vietnam War-set China Beach (1988-91) and Loretta Swit as Margaret Houlihan, the head nurse formerly known as “Hot Lips,” on M*A*S*H (1972-83), who over the series’ run grew from punchline to a more independent and respected equal with the doctors of the 4077th (check out the episode “Hot Lips Is Back in Town” from Season 7).

From down-to-earth to the final frontier

STAR TREK, Majel Barrett, (aka Majel Barrett Roddenberry), 1966-69

Everett Collection

In space, we find Christine Chapel, head nurse on the USS Enterprise on the original Star Trek (1966-69), played by Majel Barrett. Chapel is perhaps best known for her unrequited feelings for Spock. The landmark episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” renowned for its interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura, featured the first human-Vulcan kiss between Chapel and Spock.

Comedic Nurse

THREE'S COMPANY, Priscilla Barnes, John Ritter, 'Jack Bares All: Part 1', (Season 6, aired October 6, 1981), 1977-84

Everett Collection

By its sixth season, Three’s Company (1977-84) needed a transfusion of new talent. Enter Priscilla Barnes as Terri Alden, a dedicated nurse who broke the show’s mold of ditzy blondes as previously embodied by Suzanne Somers and Jenilee Harrison.

Nurses have come a long way on television and have become more empowered and more duly noted for their abilities. But sometimes, the hotshot doctors need to be reminded. Carol Hathaway spoke for all her colleagues when she told one doctor that if he stepped off his pedestal, “you would realize it’s the nurses that make this place run and not you.”


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