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'Men in White,' the original medical drama

December 3, 2009 |  8:00 am

If you’ve ever been hooked on a hospital-centered drama like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House,” “ER” or “St. Elsewhere,” you can thank a 1933 Broadway play called “Men in White.”

The drama took theatergoers inside the operating room for the first time, and a quick scan of the TV listings confirms that modern-day viewers have no intention of leaving. Two new medical shows – “Mercy” and “Three Rivers” – premiered this fall alone.

Greys “Men in White” centered on a surgical trainee named George Ferguson whose personal life gives way to the constant demands of caring for patients at a busy urban hospital. After his fed-up fiancée breaks up with him, a dalliance with a nursing student ends in tragedy. But it provides an opportunity for the fiancée to appreciate the life-and-death work that has become George’s calling.

One of the play’s most enduring scenes featured an elaborately choreographed pantomime of surgeons wielding their scalpels in the OR. George’s mentor, Dr. Hochberg, gets the proceedings off to a quick start with a single, forceful command: “Scalpel.”

“Today, the scene would elicit yawns from seasoned couch potatoes and medical drama buffs who have been entertained by such surgical derring-do for decades,” writes Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine in an essay published in this week’s issue of Journal of the American Medical Assn. “But in 1933, this stunning scene made theatrical history as it introduced large audiences to a sanctum sanctorum once accessible only to surgeons and nurses.”

“Men in White” was so successful that William Randolph Hearst ordered a film version, starring Clark Gable as George and Myrna Loy as his fiancée Laura. The MGM release hit theaters in 1934.

But today, the play is “rarely read, viewed, or performed,” Markel writes. “Adding insult to injury, a crude parody is far better recalled than the original.”

He refers to a Three Stooges spoof called “Men in Black” that finds Curly, Larry and Moe doing battle with a hospital public address system. Though it was nominated for an Oscar in 1934 for best short comedy film, Markel says, “surely the literary legacy of ‘Men in White’ deserves better than manipulation and ridicule by the Three Stooges.”

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” can trace their ancestry to the 1933 Broadway production “Men in White.” Credit: Scott Garfield / ABC