Episode Spotlight: Preventive Medicine


Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“Preventive Medicine” (#166, 7×22)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, February 19th, 1979
Written by Tom Reeder
Directed by Tony Mordente

Capsule Summary: A colonel with a high casualty rate arrives to visit his men and Hawkeye goes to drastic measures to ensure he can’t endanger any more lives.

The script for this episode was famously altered to reflect Mike Farrell’s real-life reaction to the idea of doctors removing a healthy appendix from Colonel Lacy. The conflict between Hawkeye and B.J. in this episode stands in stark contrast to the joy with which Hawkeye and Trapper removed Colonel Flagg’s appendix in “White Gold” (Season 3). Alan Alda and Farrell talked about their argument over the script in “Making M*A*S*H,” a 1981 PBS documentary about the series:

Mike Farrell: “It was against everything I stood for– BJ stood for as a doctor and against everything I understood that doctors are to stand for.”

Alan Alda: “And wouldn’t it make a good scene to be that passionate and animated over that very point in the show? I agreed it was wrong but felt the characters were under such stress that my character would do it because he felt that it was the only way to save dozens or hundreds of lives.”

Farrell: “And let me point out that this didn’t come out of whole clothe. This came out of the research we did.”

Alda: “And the interesting thing is the real doctors who really did take out the appendix never argued about it in real life. They just went ahead and did it. But it was important to take Mike’s position and play out that soul searching in a heated way and it gave us one of the best scenes we had all season because we used something real that happened among the real actors.”

Alda also discussed the episode in a November 2011 episode of America in Primetime, a PBS series about the history of television:

Well, at the rehearsal for this, Mike Farrell said ‘I’m playing a doctor who takes this seriously and I will not operate on a patient who doesn’t need the operation. That’s mutilation.’ And we started an argument that lasted about an hour that day. And at a certain point we said, you know what? This is what we ought to be doing on camera because this is a serious conflict.

There appears to be a fair amount of controversy within M*A*S*H fandom surrounding this episode, with strong feelings about B.J. opposing the operation as well as Hawkeye going through with it. Was B.J. being too preachy (something Hawkeye was often accused of)? Did Hawkeye cross the line?

The ethical questions about whether removing Colonel Lacy’s appendix to save lives overshadows the fact that the episode doesn’t work very well. Hawkeye and B.J. disagreeing about taking Lacy out of the action does add to the episode but otherwise it feels like little more than a series of plot points. Lacy is a very one-dimensional character whose motivations for wanting to take the hill are unclear and who is appropriately slimy, icy, and detached. Margaret is attracted to him but then quickly turns against him to align with the prevailing opinion that he is a horrible person.

Also, there’s no way Hawkeye could have performed the surgery on his own but that was never addressed. He must have had a nurse to help him at least, which would mean official paperwork. Presumably B.J. would have to go along with Hawkeye’s diagnosis in order to protect him, which would no doubt mean lying to Colonel Potter.

More than anything, the lack of repercussions or any lasting effects from Hawkeye going through with the operation temper the impact of the episode. Hawkeye doesn’t seem haunted by his actions in later episode nor does B.J.’s opinion of his friend change in any way. That said, there was rarely continuity between episodes of M*A*S*H.

The more you think about this stuff and the the farther you take it, the less things make sense and the harder it is to see the episode as a standalone story.

Klinger’s “occult” storyline is glaringly out of place in this episode. It’s not even an afterthought. It’s total nonsense, obviously included to somehow force Klinger into the episode. The same goes for inserting the scene between Margaret and Charles in line at the Mess Tent. It adds nothing to the episode. I wish Charles had instead been involved in the conversation between Hawkeye and B.J. about removing Colonel Lacey’s appendix.

B.J. won’t go along with Hawkeye

Some sources refer to this episode as “Preventive Medicine,” including the United State Copyright Office, TV.com, the Paley Center for Media, and UCLA’s Film and Television Archive. Many others call it “Preventative Medicine,” including the Season 7 DVD set, the Internet Movie Database, the “Making M*A*S*H” documentary, and TV’s M*A*S*H: The Ultimate Guide Book.

Was Charles mistakenly calling Igor a corporal before correcting himself and referring to him as a private a goof on the part of David Ogden Stiers? Or was it a deliberate act on the part of scriptwriter Tom Reeder to emphasize how little Charles cared for enlisted men like Igor?

When Klinger is outside the Swamp talking to his little Colonel Potter doll, two corpsman can be seen looking at him and talking in the background, obviously sharing a laugh about that nutty Klinger.

Why was Radar so eager to please Colonel Lacy?

16 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Preventive Medicine”

  1. As I said before, Season Seven seems to be the season Klinger really upped the ante at trying to get a discharge, because he seemed to have a completely different scheme every week: some wild, some flat – this was one of his wilder ones.

    But aside from that, there’s really only one thing I took from this episode, because I actually find it to be true. When Potter shares some words of wisdom with Radar, he tells him, “Sometimes when someone’s anxious to stick out a glad hand, it’s because he’s got somethin’ up his sleeve.” I can attest to that; I remember one day in high school, I met a guy who was quick to offer up his hand when we first met, then later he turned out to my generation’s personification of Eddie Haskell.

    Other than that, a rather meh/average episode. I do kind of wonder, however, how Potter would have reacted to the unnecessary surgery; Henry went along with Hawkeye and Trapper on removing Flagg’s appendix.

    1. It is worth pointing out that “Preventative Medicine” is probably the last episode to feature Klinger attempting a crazy discharge scheme. It was over the top, sure, but a few of his season seven schemes were. My personal favourite was his pretending he was back in Toledo in “The Young and the Restless” LOL

  2. I like this episode, though it’s clear that the debate about & eventual removal of Lacey’s appendix overshadows everything else in it. The contrast between the occurrence in this episode and the one in “White Gold” is startling, and shows just how much M*A*SH evolved by 1979.

  3. You summed it up quite well, RJ. Though the subject matter at hand is very serious, the episode itself is so unremarkable that any sort of message it tries to convey gets lost in the delivery. Added to that, Klinger is very annoying in this episode and all his antics are just frustrating. Pretty sure, he wouldn’t be able to walk into the kitchen and walk away with a plucked chicken like he did here.

    This episode could have been more but then it just fails to deliver.

  4. The real story of this episode of that Reeder, and story editors Ken Levine and David Issacs, forgot about “The Ringbanger” in season 2, which used the same plotline. As Levine wrote about it on his blog, they ended up having the show aired against the Academy Awards telecast for that reason.

    1. “Ringbanger” is s1e16, not season 2…just fyi. I grew up watching M*A*S*H and am now re-watching every episode from start to finish on Netflix. I’m noticing so many small things. Like in s3 e21 or 22 Col. Blake says to a nurse, about Radar, “Do I look old enough to be his father?…One never knows; I spent a week in his hometown once.” Anyway, I’m here after watching Hawkeye & Trapper remove Flagg’s appendix & looking for the other show in which Hawkeye did that. I think I remembered the other better because of that argument with B.J. I had forgotten it was done to Flagg. So I guess the moral argument made it more memorable.

  5. I agree with BJ’s opinion that some things are always wrong no matter how you justify it. The same thing happened in “Death Takes a Holiday” when Hawkeye moved the clock ahead so Flanagan’s family wouldn’t remember Christmas in a somber way.

    1. I also agree with BJ doc funny pants, but Hawkeye lying on a death certificate to save a soldier’s family from hating a holiday, to me, does not seem wrong.

  6. Not one of my favorite episodes, but man I loved Hawkeye and BJ’s exchange. Very real, very raw. Very human. Amazing.

  7. Today, August 14, 2019, Ken Levine’s blog as a story about the episode, “Preventive Medicine.” Very interesting.

  8. I thought the voodoo stuff was funny, if out of place, and it was rather touching seeing Klinger think that he’d really affected Colonel Potter. But that might have worked better with a Halloween themed episode.

    This episode showed one of the ways in which BJ was very different from Trapper, who gleefully went along with Hawkeye in doing something similar in “The Ringbanger.”

  9. Is it just me or is Col. Lacey wearing major clusters and not a colonel bird? I thought that maybe line officers had different jewelry, but Google did have it that way. Even Potter points out that “his bird is more powerful than your (Klinger’s) bird”, yet Lacey still has maple leafs.

    1. Full Colonels had the bird, yes; Lieutenant Colonels (like Henry), however, had silver clusters/maple leafs, while Majors had gold.

  10. Neither man was completely right or wrong. BJ was right in that what Hawkeye was about to do was overstepping his bounds as a doctor and violating medical ethics. Hawkeye was right in that he was saving lives. Sometimes there are no good answers.

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