Marcus Welby, M.D., which aired on ABC from late September, 1969 through mid-May 1976, was one of the most popular doctor shows in U.S. television history. During the 1970 television year, it even ranked number one among all TV series according to the Nielsen Television Index. As such, it was the first ABC program to take the top program slot for an entire season. The Nielsen data suggested Marcus Welby, M.D. was viewed regularly in about one of every four American homes that year.
The Tuesday, 10-11:00 P.M. program was created by David Victor, who had been a producer on the hit Dr. Kildare television series during the 1960s. Victor took a centerpiece of the basic doctor-show formula--the older physician-mentor tutoring the young man--and transferred it from the standard hospital setting to the suburban office of a general practitioner. The sicknesses that Marcus Welby and his young colleague Steven Kiley dealt with--everything from drug addition to rape, from tumors to autism--ran the same wide gamut that hospital-based medical shows had. In fact, many of the patients ended up in the hospital, and Welby even moved his practice to a hospital toward the end of the show's run. Nevertheless, Marcus Welby, M.D. was different from other shows of its era such as Medical Center and The Bold Ones. Those shows stressed short-term illnesses that paralleled or ignited certain unrelated personal problems. Welby, on the other hand, dealt consistently with long-term medical problems that were tied directly to the patient's psyche and interpersonal behavior. Acute episodes of the difficulty often sparked movement toward a cure, but only after Welby or Kiley uncovered the root causes of the behavioral problems.
In one case, for example, Dr. Welby and Dr. Kiley become concerned about Enid Cooper, a counselor in an orphanage, when they learn she's addicted to pills. The doctors are unable to persuade the young woman to give them up. Then, under the influence of pills, Enid is responsible for a car accident in which one of her charges is hurt. That allows Welby to move her towards conquering her addiction.
This emphasis on the psyche and medicine was celebrated by Robert Young, who played Marcus Welby. Young suffered from chemical imbalances in his body that led him toward depression and alcoholism. To fight those difficulties, he had developed an approach to life that mirrored the holistic health philosophy that he now acted out as a TV doctor. People who worked with him on the set said that it was often hard to tell where Young stopped and Welby began, so closely did the actor identify with his role. Viewers seemed to have that difficulty, too. Young received thousands of letters asking for advice on life's problems.
In choosing topics to deal with in the program itself, Welby's producers and writers benefited from a softening in the U.S. television networks' rules regarding what was acceptable on TV in the early 1970s. The relaxation came about partly because of increased network competition for viewers in their 20s and 30s and partly as a result of new demands for openness and the questioning of authority that the social protests of the late 1960s brought. It allowed David Victor to initiate stories, such as one on venereal disease, that he could not get approved for Dr. Kildare.
The show did ignite public controversies. One episode called "The Outrage" centered on the rape of a teenage boy by a male teacher. It ignited one of the first organized protests against a TV show by gay activists. More general were complaints by the rising women's rights movement that Marcus Welby's control over the lives of his patients (many of whom were women) represented the worst aspects of male physician' paternalistic attitudes.
While scathing, such opposition made up a rather small portion of the public discussion of the series over its seven-year prime-time life. More consistent was the controversy over Welby's impact on physicians' images. With previous doctor shows, the concern of physicians was to cultivate as favorable an image as possible. Now some physicians worried that Welby's incredibly solicitous and loyal bedside manner was leading their patients to question why they did not act toward them as Welby would. Was it true, as writer-physician Michael Halberstam contended in The New York Times Magazine that the series couldn't help "but make things better for American doctors and their patients"? Or, was it the case, as others claimed, that Welby was among the factors contributing to the rise of malpractice actions against physicians?
The debate marked the first time that the physicians establishment got involved in a large-scale argument over whether fictional images that were positive actually had negative effects on their status. The argument would continue about other doctor shows in the coming years. But to Robert Young, Marcus Welby incarnate, it was a non-issue. According to an article in McCall's magazine, a doctor said to Young at a convention of family physicians, "You're getting us all into hot water. Our patients tell us we're not as nice to them as Doctor Welby is to his patients." Young didn't mince words. "Maybe you're not," he replied.
Dr. Marcus Welby..................................... Robert Young
Dr. Steven Kiley ........................................James Brolin
Consuelo Lopez...................................... Elena Verdugo
Kathleen Faverty (1974-1976).................... Sharon Gless
Sandy Porter (1975-1976)...................... Anne Schedeen
Phil Porter (1975-1976)............................ Gavin Brendan
David Victor, David J. O'Connell
Turow, Joseph. Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.