In the Media: Who's Your Favorite Fictional Nurse Character?

    • March 23, 2012

Love her or hate her, Jackie Peyton—also known as “Nurse Jackie,” the lead character in the eponymous prime-time medical drama on Showtime—inspires passion.

"Despite her deeply flawed persona, Jackie is an unusually helpful TV nurse because, as a skilled professional, she advocates for patients and makes astute assessments and courageous interventions to save lives—sending messages that people badly need to hear about nursing,” says Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH, founder of The Truth About Nursing and co-author of Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All at Risk.

But the American Nurses Association is not so thrilled. A drug addict and an adulterer, Jackie offers a “distasteful portrayal of nurses and nursing,” the association argued when the show debuted in 2009.

Jackie is just one of the many fictional, and often controversial, nurse characters in the entertainment media who have helped shape the national image of nursing.

Some of the higher profile TV nurse characters from the late 1960s and 1970s include Julia Baker, a nurse and widowed single mother from the series Julia; Consuelo Lopez, the nurse in the medical drama Marcus Welby MD; and Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan from the critically acclaimed television series M.A.S.H.

In the 1980s there was Colleen McMurphy, the Vietnam-era military nurse and lead character in China Beach, and in the 1990s there was Carol Hathaway, the nurse and nurse manager on the long-running medical drama ER, which concluded in 2009 after 15 seasons.

Carla Espinosa, from the popular situation-comedy Scrubs, got laughs through the first decade of the 21st century, and characters like Christina Hawthorne from the recent cable television show HawthoRNe followed.

On the silver screen, high-profile nurse characters have included male nurse Greg Focker in the Meet the Parents trilogy and two evil psychopaths: Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; and Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s horror film, Misery.

Nurse characters abound in literature too. Some of the best-known figures include World War I-era nurse Catherine Barkley, a lead character in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms; Madam Poppy Pomfrey, a nurse at the school of magic and wizardry attended by Harry Potter and his friends; and Briony and Cecilia Tallis, two British sisters who become World War II-era nurses in the novel Atonement. (These nurse characters achieved even greater recognition when the books were turned into movies).

What do you think? Who is your all-time favorite and least favorite fictional nursing character? Join the conversation on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Human Capital blog.