Discuss: Was Frank a Bad Surgeon?


Monday M*A*S*H Discussions offers fans the opportunity to offer their opinions on a wide variety of topics relating to M*A*S*H. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. My hope is these discussion posts will continue to elicit comments in the weeks and months after they’re initially published. Have a suggestion about something you think might be worth discussing? Let me know and maybe it will become my next Monday M*A*S*H Discussion topic.

Today’s topic comes courtesy of Istvan: Was Frank a Bad Surgeon?

Competent or Inept

As Istvan pointed out when suggesting this topic, if Frank was such a terrible surgeon, how did the 4077th maintain its impressive survival rate? With just four doctors, it seems impossible that the other three could manage if Frank wasn’t at least competent as a surgeon. Hawkeye makes a lot of jokes about Frank’s surgical skills. There were also multiple examples of Frank making mistakes during triage or surgery. Frank himself explains in “The Sniper” how it took him twice as long to finish medical school because he flunked out twice.

Yet there are also a handful of references to Frank being good at his job. For example, in “Major Fred C. Dobbs,” Henry refers to Frank as “a fair, competent general surgeon.”

We know from “The Novocaine Mutiny” that Frank thinks highly of his skills as a surgeon. He clearly knew his way around most of the human body. He had a successful private practice before the war, although it may not have involved much surgery.

Do you think Frank was a terrible surgeon? Were Hawkeye and the other doctors at the 4077th talented enough to cover for his many mistakes? Or was Frank a competent surgeon who simply did not devote as much attention and energy to his patients as Hawkeye, Trapper, and the other surgeons?

Hit the comments with your thoughts.

18 Replies to “Discuss: Was Frank a Bad Surgeon?”

  1. It’s too easy to simply place him in a box labeled “bad surgeon” My interpretation of his character and (more specifically) his ability as a surgeon begins with his motivation to become a surgeon. He exists in a time when being a doctor is a guaranteed source of wealth, and as such, his primary focus is to make money with his career. If he were a truly *bad* surgeon, he would have never made it past medical school. Rather, I would place him in a category more akin to ‘technically adequate.’ He has the ability to do good (and sometimes great work) but, unlike his fellow MASH surgeons, his motivation is not to heal his patients and make their quality of life better, but simply to do a job without screwing up.

    As a result of this, had he been amongst other surgeons who were simply doing job, he would not have stood out as a mediocre surgeon, but rather an average one. I have spoken to a few people who have worked with battlefield surgeons, and they inform me that, in the beginning the doctors are often quite conscientious, but as the horror and grind of the work wears them down, it becomes a job and many of them lose their passion for life-saving.

    This is not to say that all battlefield surgeons become heartless automatons, but rather that the environment can have a numbing effect on the psyche. In speaking to the same people I mentioned before, many of them recall surgeons who bounced back once they were able to work in more controlled environments.

    As a corollary to the original question: Do I think Frank would have become a more feeling and capable surgeon after being assigned stateside? Not a chance. Remember, his primary muse is mammon, and in that pursuit, he will only be focused on how much wealth he can accumulate. His motivation will not be the well-being of his patients (unless that lack of caring might affect his job security.)

  2. penguinphysics brings up an interesting point: if Frank is such a bad surgeon, how can he have a thriving practice back home? Probably because his practice didn’t involve a lot of surgery. Matter of fact, there’s this exchange in an episode where Charles was still relatively new to the 4077th, as he and Margaret look over a casualty in triage:

    MARGARET: Soldier, in the States, you’d be lucky to afford to have this man look at you.
    CHARLES: She’s right. If this happened in Boston, I would have refered you to someone else.

    So, I’m guess back home, if a patient of Frank’s was really in need of a major surgery, Frank probably would have just refered them to another surgeon to actually do that job.

    In addition to flunking medical school, he also mentions to Trapper in another episode that he bought the answers to his medical exam.

    You know, this discussion is actually a bit more complicated than I thought it would be. . . . I saw the opening question to this week’s discussion, and my inital reaction was simply, “Of course he was a bad surgeon, no question.” But now this discussion is making me think about it even more. Frank’s skills (or lack thereof) as a surgeon weren’t necessarily a source of consistency.

    Like penguinphysics also pointed out, it was clear that Frank’s motivation was purely for collecting fees (that, and as he said, him becoming a doctor was his mother’s wish, and Frank does seem to be a momma’s boy) – this, sadly, is all too true in the medical profession, especially today: it’s hard to find a decent doctor who will actually care for you rather than your wallet (one of the reasons a lot of doctors opposed ACA). Charles appeared to be the same way for the most part, but unlike Frank, Charles was at least intelligent and skilled enough to actually do a good job. Frank thought more highly of himself than others did: even in the novel and movie, if he goofed up or lost a patient, he wouldn’t own up to his own mistakes, he’d say it was an act of God (or blame someone else for his incompetence).

    Frank also clearly suffered from de-evolution as the series progressed in more ways than one. In the beginning, it could be argued that Frank was, indeed, “a fair, but competent general surgeon,” but at the same time, he clearly displayed a little more human emotion: he not only eventually accepted Hawkeye being named Chief Surgeon, but even when Hawkeye finally figured out why his patient wasn’t doing well post-surgery, Frank actually tells him, “Anyone could have missed that.” Over time, Frank just declined into such a bungler, it was almost unrealistic, and I think by that point, his incompetence as a surgeon was mainly for comedic effect.

    I think I could discuss this even more, but this is all I’ve got for the moment.

    1. No, Charles was justifiably Proud of his abilities as a Surgeon.
      His largest problem when he joined Mash was that he kept trying to perform “Perfect” surgery which takes 3 times as long as “Meatball” surgery.
      It took him a while to adjust to the idea that a MASH Surgeon’s job was to Stabilize the patient so that a Secondary hospital hundreds of miles away from the War could do “Cleanup” work and redo the “Meatball” job correctly.

      He was also convinced that his Family Wealth also entitled him to the most Prestigious jobs at the most Prestigious Hospitals.

  3. I think initially Frank was a “fair to middling” surgeon but what skills he had atrophied as time went on. This is partly because Frank was given the more routine work so his skills didn’t develop and partly because Frank’s knowledge was out of date (I think there’s a reference to his medical journals being out of date ones)
    Also as others have said he didn’t really care about his patients and had no bed side manner. I think there are also a couple of reference to Pierce being better under pressure.

    1. Yep. In “Chief Surgeon Who?” Frank insists on going by medical journals, of which Hawkeye says he’s way behind with his journals. It’s also the same episode where we have this exchange:

      FRANK: Are you implying that [Pierce] is a better doctor?
      HENRY: Yes, when the heat’s on!

      Not to mention, it was established that Hawkeye was the best doctor in camp – even Margaret secretly thought so in earlier seasons – not that she would tell Frank to his face.

      There’s also an episode where Frank realizes he’s behind in his medical knowledge and tries catching up with recent medical journals . . . but reads about how doctors should base their fees on a certain percentage of their patient’s household income, prompting Hawkeye and B.J. to throw stuff at him for being an idiot.

      And true, Burns had no bedside manner or compassion. He’s a highly exaggerated caricaturization of a dyed-in-the-wool conservative – as far as he’s concerned, unless the patients had an impressive war record, or was highly decorated, he felt they were otherwise “bleedin’ hearts.” There’s even one episode (can’t remember which one) where Frank is actually trying to carry on a conversation with a patient in Post-Op, but when the patient says he doesn’t want to go back into combat, Frank promptly leaves saying he doesn’t have to listen to his sob story.

      But you bring up an excellent point regarding Frank’s abilities and skills atrophying as time went on – that’s exactly what I think ended up happening. Charles made a similar complaint to Potter one time about how the meatball surgery at the 4077th was causing his skills to deteriorate.

      1. Frank’s practice at Home was mostly as a “Consulting” Doctor who gave his patients a cursory Examination and then passed them on to a “Specialist”.

        At 4 patients per hour for 10 minutes each, he could rack up a Lot of money for “Office Visits”.

        He could also make great money prescribing placebos to Hypochondriacs.

  4. I don’t think Frank was a “bad” surgeon, just by the sheer fact that their survival rate was so high. Even if he did less patients than the other doctors, he had to be at least 20ish% of the patients worked on, so with a 96-ish% survival rate, even if almost ALL lost patients were Franks (they weren’t), that still puts him at well above an 80% survival rate.

    I think the comments of him being a “bad” surgeon were two-fold.

    1. As pointed out above, where as Hawkeye, Trapper, BJ, etc. were passionate about their work, Frank most likely did it for the money. This to people that are passionate would make them a bit bitter towards people like Frank and spark a lot of the type of comments we got, especially fmro Hawkeye.

    2. The vast majority of the “bad surgeon” hate came from Hawkeye, who as we know is pretty arrogant in a lot of ways (yea Frank is too) but I suspect a lot of the hate was exaggerated by Hawkeye. Trapper, BJ, and everyone else just kinda followed suit with Hawkeye.

    I would say Frank was a perfectly fine surgeon, especially when he applied himself and cared about his work/patients. Unfortunately he just didn’t do that very often.

    1. The Triage center steered the Least Injured Patients to Frank and gave the Worst cases to everyone else.

      Even Frank could remove a bullet from a Leg or Arm without Kiliing the patient. At least when paired with a competent Nurse to keep an Eye on him.

  5. This is a deceptively difficult question!

    I think my answer would be that he was less of an out-and-out BAD doctor and more of a middling one, but it’s tough to say because the character changed over the course of his time on the series.

    Certainly he was always a self-righteous bumbler, but it seems he was considered GENERALLY competent, at least earlier on. Over the course of the first five seasons though, he became more of a neurotic screw up. Him accidentally trying to remove Henry’s finger while operating, or attempting to take out a patient’s kidney (it was the kidney, right?) when there was only one, those aren’t the marks of a good doctor. In “The Novocaine Mutiny,” Colonel Carmichael says Frank would have been better suited as a pastry chef. But then, even Potter wished Frank was there in the OR at the start of season six, so he must have been of SOME use.

    Much of our perception of Frank can be attributed to snide remarks made by Hawkeye and Trapper/BJ, along with the revelations that it took Frank longer than others to get through medical school, he never really wanted to be a doctor, and that he bought a cheat sheet for his exams. Whatever Frank was in actuality however, it’s tough to say. He’s markedly less of a surgeon than Hawkeye, Trapper, BJ, Henry, Potter, and Winchester, there’s no doubt there, but I think the notion of him being completely worthless was basically joke fodder.

    So yes, I’m going to stick with “middling doctor.”

    1. Well the kidney incident was justifiable, because they were in such a deluge and slammed with heavy casualties, they were working around the clock and trying to get patients in and out as quickly as possible so other wounded could be brought in, nobody told Frank that X-rays had been taken of that patient until Trapper pointed it out . . . and even so, we had another rare human moment for Frank when he later thanks Trapper for telling him about the kidney. Then we also learn that he had an abusive childhood and he became a snitch just so he could talk to somebody.

      As for Potter’s remark, it was a similar situation: they were overloaded with casualties, and even a pair of hands short, that was hindering them, which is why he was wishing Frank was back from R&R so the surgical team could pick up the pace.

      1. The two or three conversations Frank has with Trapper throughout the 3 years, including the one you mention, are the reason I have never disliked Frank as a character, and always been very sympathetic to him.

        I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but Frank is honestly one of my favorite characters from the show. I like him SIGNIFICANTLY more than Hawkeye or BJ, many times over. Yes he was a crap ahead the vast majority of the time, but what we’ve heard about his childhood explains it for me, and makes him real and sympathetic. A person’s childhood vastly shapes their adult life, so I don’t fault him at all for being the way he is. If anything, everyone in the camp, especially Hawkeye should be ashamed at the way they treat him.

        That’s just my opinion though.

      2. Frank is a lot more complicated that people seem to understand. Yes, he’s a character you love to hate (TV Land even ranked him right smack dab in the middle at #5 on their list of a top 10 list), and he does, admittedly, bring a lot of the crap he gets on himself by being the whiney little weasel that he is. . . .

        But. . . . When you take the time to pay attention to his backstory and everything, it actually makes sense that Frank is the way he is. Clearly he had an abusive father who didn’t even like him, he had a brother who would belittle and call him names (hence the origin of “Ferret Face”), he had a strict and overbearing upbringing . . . he’s probably a momma’s boy because his mother must have been the only member of the family who had any ounce of compassion for him. I mean, when he’s talking to his mother on the phone and telling her that a “friend” only pretended to like him, “the way dad used to.” It seems funny because it’s written for laughs, but in a real life scenario, it’s just plain sad.

        Again, Frank even admits the reason he became a snitch was so he could talk to somebody. Frank clearly wanted companionship, from anybody. I forget the episode, but he said one time that the only friend he had in school was the janitor (off-topic, but I made friends with my elementary school janitor, because I felt like the man’s life probably was crap if he had to be a janitor). Also notice whenever Trapper starts showing a nice side towards him, Frank seems eager to strike up a genuine friendship with him. Aside from Margaret being a troperific Hot Blonde Republican Sex Kitten and a piece of ass for him, Frank clung to her because she was the only one who would have anything to do with him on a social level. I know the writers, producers, and even Loretta Swit felt Margaret deserved better than a weasel who was clearly never going to leave his wife whom he didn’t even love anyway, but really when Margaret gets engaged to Penobscott, Frank clearly feels betrayed, hence his remark about having a friend who only “pretended to like him.”

        Frank is truly a sad character. And God bless Larry Linville – he had the toughest job on that set: a kind, caring, generous, well-read, and intelligent (even had a degree in Engineering and built gliders in his spare time) man having to play a dispicable character every day for five years, and a character who was continually de-evolving more and more at that. I remember even Mike Farrell once said that Larry was concerned that Frank had become a seriously disturbed, pathological character, and that it truly wasn’t funny to make fun of a character who was genuinely crazy.

      3. Agree with everything you just said @BDOR. The scene in particular with Frank on the phone with his mom was always extremely sad to me. The part you mentioned about Frank saying “the way dad used to” while I agree was probably done for laughs, was never funny to me at all, and was extremely sad. In fact that phone call in itself is enough for me to fully sympathize with the character and forgive just about every negative aspect of his character.

        Always hated the way the convo with Trapper ended. It was a very nice and touching moment, and really showed how vastly superior as a character Trapper was in every single way possible to Hawkeye, but then they had to go and ruin it at the end with the “now shut up Frank, or I’ll kill you”. I guess that was meant to be a joke, but not only does it fall flat, but it basically ruins the entire conversation up to that point, and shows that it’s really Trapper and other’s who are the villain.

        Mike Farell is 100% right about Frank. What they did to his character in season 5 is abhorrent. I don’t blame Linville one bit for leaving. The character was already bad enough to play, but the way he was treated in season 5, especially by Margaret is deplorable.

        I may be wrong but didn’t Gene Reynolds say at one point that he was pretty unhappy with the way the character went, and that it was a part (small part) of the reason he too decided to leave the show?

      4. I don’t recall what Gene Reynolds’s reasons for leaving were, but I know he was the one who really pushed for Margaret to develop as far as becoming engaged to and eventually marrying Donald Penobscott, and was even pretty upset that they ended up getting divorced, because he felt it defeated the purpose of Margaret’s growth and development as a character.

        As for Frank, he actually wanted Frank to stay, but I really don’t know what they could have possibly done with that character in ensuing seasons after how deep he had fallen in Season 5 . . . I think it would have been rather unrealistic if they had Frank suddenly decide to let Margaret go and actually start being a decent guy after his gradual descent into what he had become. It’s like how Radar started off as worldly and sneaky, then gradually descended into being the naive and innocent farm boy, to suddenly being all cranky and jaded when he felt. I just don’t see the Frank character surviving on the show had they kept him on after that. Just like, despite Radar being my favorite character, and yeah, his absence is one of the reasons I dislike Season 8-11, but the direction the show veered into during those seasons, I feel like innocent and naive little Radar would be out of place in the more dramatic and sombre atmosphere of those seasons to the point I don’t think even his presence could save those seasons.

        Frank is a character I can only tolerate in moderation. Same with Charles, which is why we have a nice balance of both. Both can be genuinely unlikable characters for totally different reasons, but both brought something special in their own way as well, which is why I can take both of them in moderation. Same with Henry and Potter: both were great characters in their own right for different reasons, and I enjoy both of them and their presence during their respective tenures on the show. Trapper and B.J. on the other hand, Trapper got the short end of the stick from the writers, while they took the time to flesh out and develop B.J., so it’s why I prefer him over Trapper.

  6. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the comments. I couldn’t possibly add anything to what has already been said.Thank you for putting the topic up for discussion, as a long time MASH fan, I’m glad it was worthy of a discussion.

  7. the quote about Frank I will always remember is from the novel. Frank is described as having “a definite technical competency.” Burns was a by the book, connect the dots type doctor who could do the basics, but didn’t handle emergencies, think outside the box or handle extremely rare situations all that well. That’s when they called Hawkeye over.

  8. Frank was a pompous git . H.E. and trapper wouldn’t feed his ego with praise by admitting he was a good surgeon.

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