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, MD. 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
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.
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
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.
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'
Marcus Welby, M.D.
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
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 Myra Sherwood (1969-1970) ........................Anne
Baxter Kathleen Faverty (1974-1976).................... Sharon
Gless Sandy Porter (1975-1976)...................... Anne
Schedeen Phil Porter (1975-1976)............................
Gavin Brendan Janet Blake (1975-1976) .......................Pamela
David Victor, David J. O'Connell
HISTORY 172 Episodes
September 1969-May 1976
Turow, Joseph. Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and
Medical Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.