‘M*A*S*H’: Alan Alda’s Near-Death Experience with Polio is Why He Became a Feminist

by Suzanne Halliburton
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M*A*S*H star Alan Alda always used his celebrity status to preach about women’s issues. He did so for his daughters to give them a better world.

He declared himself a proud feminist. And he said he did so because a pushy, headstrong, innovative woman saved his life. It seems the perfect backstory for Dr. Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. Instead, it’s Alda’s truth.

This was long before he ever thought about an acting career. Alda was hoping to be able to lead a normal life after contracting polio when he was 7. His parents, Robert and Joan, administered a different sort of polio treatment for their young son. This was back in the 1940s, when doctors treated the disease by immobilizing the affected limbs in plaster casts.

Instead, the Aldas relied on a treatment created by Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse.

M*A*S*H Star Talked About His Feminist Roots

Alda, who was one of the most popular actors in the country thanks to M*A*S*H, discussed his feminist roots in 1981. That’s when he appeared on an NBC news show hosted by David Brinkley. The interviewer asked him why he became such a champion for women.

“Flying over the country one day,” Alda said. “I realized something about that (polio) experience that I hadn’t thought about all these years. (That was) to what extent I owe my life to Sister Kenny, who invented this treatment for polio that saved me.

“And I owe my life, interestingly, not just to the inventiveness of a woman — and women are not supposed to be inventive — that’s supposed to be the province of men. But here was a woman who wouldn’t listen when the medical community made up entirely of men told her to be quiet. So my life was saved by somebody who won a battle against sexism.”

Sister Kenny, who died in 1950, is credited for the genesis of physical therapy. Actress Rosalind Russell was nominated for an Oscar for playing Kenny in the 1946 movie, Sister Kenny.

At Height of Show, Alda Addressed Hawkeye’s Chauvinism

Alan Alda’s best known role is portraying a surgeon on M*A*S*H. And while he was on the show, he stood up for women’s issues. Hawkeye, his character, was a womanizing surgeon. Alda thought he was a bit of a chauvinist. The actor addressed that when he began writing some episodes for M*A*S*H. And he won a Emmy in 1979 for writing an episode called Inga. In it, Hawkeye was forced to deal with his own chauvinism when meeting a female surgeon portrayed by Mariette Hartley.

Also during the M*A*S*H years, Alda appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine. And he wrote an essay called “What Every Woman Should Know About Men.” Except in this essay, Alda wrote about “testosterone poisoning. ” It was part sarcasm and part factual.

And his penchant towards feminism all had its roots in Alda’s life-altering battle with polio.

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