In the early 1960s Dr Kildare represented everyone’s ideal doctor, earnestly navigating clinical and moral dilemmas under the guidance of his mentor Dr Gillespie. Not every episode had a happy ending, but good-looking Dr Kildare always ended up the wiser. And there were attempts to reflect the real world. President Lyndon B. Johnson actually requested that the series feature the growing social problem of venereal disease, but the network funked the challenge.
Since Dr Kildare, medical serials have been a TV staple, most memorably ER, written by former doctor and author of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton. Though it might be difficult for many viewers to take their eyes off George Clooney, ER, unlike Dr Kildare, was essentially about the whole team, a formula followed in Britain by Casualty and Holby City. African-American and woman doctors joined the cast. Over its 15-year life ER introduced its huge audience to issues such as AIDS and even ventured to Iraq. But it has dated – all those women with glamourous hair, all those wisecracks and soap-opera personal lives.
Running alongside fictional medical shows was a programme about real life surgeons and their patients. Your Life in Their Hands started in 1958 – before the Dr Kildare era – and continued for several decades. Jonathan Miller and Robert Winston were among the medics who presented it. A doctor from the Lancet provided advice, but the BMA huffed and puffed about doctors being dragged off their pedestals until the programme’s popularity led them to review their position.