‘M*A*S*H’: Why There Was Confusion Over Who Was the Chief Surgeon

by Taylor Cunningham

As most fans know, M*A*S*H was based on a book. And on many accounts, the writers of the series followed the original tale well. But there was one particular storyline that they didn’t agree with—which doctor was best suited to be the chief surgeon.

When the book, titled M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, debuted in 1968, it was Captain “Trapper John” McIntyre who ran the 4077’s medical team. And he also held the position for the movie that dropped two years later. In both, Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce reported to his best friend as a combat surgeon.

But when the classic TV series hit CBS in 1972, the chain of command looked a little different. And that caused some confusion for fans who had followed the wartime story from the start.

On the show, Trapper John was still a highly skilled surgeon who played a heavy hand in the plot during seasons 1 through 3. But he was not the M*A*S*H chief surgeon. Instead, that honor went to Hawkeye.

However, the writers did try to help ease the confusion by dedicating an entire episode to Hawkeye’s lead role. During the Season 1 installment aptly titled Chief Surgeon Who?, Lt Col Henry Blake hands Hawkeye the chief promotion. And from that day forward, he is the only person to hold the title. Never once did the show mention that Trapper John was ever the chief of the 4077.

Hawkeye Seemed to Better Fit the Chief Surgeon Role on ‘M*A*S*H’ Series

The reason behind Blake’s decision was because of the respect that the rest of the soldiers had for Hawkeye. His hard-earned surgical skills didn’t hurt either. In the story, Hawkeye held two medical specialty certifications.

Of course, Hawkeye’s promotion didn’t come without its drama. Another surgeon was gunning for the position and was surprised when Blake passed him over. But interestingly, it wasn’t Trapper John who had sour grapes. Instead, Major Frank Burns threw a fit about the decision.

Burns outranked Hawkeye on M*A*S*H, so he believed he was the logical choice for the chief surgeon position. But Burns never waivered from his decision because he believed that Hawkeye was a better doctor under pressure.

And for the sake of the series, naming Hawkeye as the lead surgeon turned out to be a solid re-write. Out of all of the doctors who were technically up for the position, he was the only one to remain on screen for all 11 seasons.

Trapper John’s Wayne Rogers left in 1978 because he believed he wasn’t getting enough comic material, among other things. And Frank Burns’ Larry Linville left that same year because he thought his character had played itself out.