“Quincy,”—A crusading doctor played by a crusading actor

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

 

Photo of Quincy actor Jack Klugman and co-star Robert Ito
Photo of Robert Ito as Sam and Jack Klugman as Quincy from the television drama Quincy. 1977. NBC Television. Via Wikimedia.

The television series Quincy, or Quincy, M.E. [Medical examiner], aired between 1976 and 1983 in the US. One hundred forty-six episodes of this program were televised. Quincy was originally conceived as a crime drama, with the police helped by the ideas and findings of Dr. Quincy (no first name), a forensic pathologist working for Los Angeles County. This pathologist was hard-working, brilliant, and intolerant of corruption, incompetence, and negligence. He was tenacious in defending his conclusions and acted like a crusader to get people, laws, or situations changed for the protection of society. He was a loud, impatient extrovert. In addition, he was loyal to his friends and colleagues.

His boss was Dr. Astin. His other colleagues were Sam Fujiyama, his chief technician, who was highly capable, efficient, and used to Quincy’s personal preferences. Quincy had very frequent contact with Lieutenant Monahan and Sergeant Brill, two Los Angeles homicide detectives. Danny, a restaurateur and friend of all the other characters, had a place where the others gathered and described the conclusion of the case upon which each episode was based.

Interestingly, the character of Quincy, probably based on Dr. Thomas Noguchi (born 1927), the one-time Los Angeles County chief medical examiner and “coroner to the stars,”1 was very similar to the actor, Jack Klugman (1922-2012), who played him, even though the role had not been specifically written for Klugman. Klugman’s forceful suggestions made the producers change the orientation of the program from a detective story to a series often with an educational goal. “There’s got to be some value on TV, you can’t just have screeching tires,” Klugman said.2

Among the problems dramatized on the program were: autism, trisomy-21, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism (both in adolescents and in adults), substance abuse, adolescent suicide, child abuse, elder abuse, houses built on toxin-containing landfills, sexually transmitted infections, Tourette syndrome, hand gun availability, life-threatening fraternity hazing, orphan drugs, adult illiteracy, sudden infant death syndrome, and the question of brain death and the timing of organ transplantation. Most of these problems have persisted in the forty years since Quincy was filmed.

In the series, the medical profession was also criticized for practices inimical to the health of patients or to the public at large. These practices included: medical negligence or incompetence, biased expert witness testimony, disregarding chain-of-evidence procedures in collecting medical evidence after a suspected rape, “ghost surgery,” in which the surgeon of record is not present during a procedure and is performed by a more junior surgeon or resident, and the need for regional trauma centers. Quincy, in effect, “was a show about humanity disguised as a crime and forensics show.”3

Klugman used his celebrity status to call attention to orphan diseases, defined as individual diseases that each affect less than 200,000 Americans. These include muscular dystrophy, Tourette syndrome, cystic fibrosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and mesothelioma and other rare cancers. He stressed the need to develop treatments for these conditions, on which pharmaceutical companies did not spend money as the market was too small and therefore not profitable. Klugman, after a Quincy episode about orphan drugs, appeared before the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Health and Environment. His persistent lobbying led to the passage of the Waxman-Hatch Drug Act of 1983, which offered incentives to drug companies (tax reductions and seven-year monopolies) to research and develop orphan drugs.

Since 1983 the FDA has approved more than 300 orphan drugs.5 After Klugman’s death, the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) stated, “We will always remember him as one of the best friends the rare disease patient community ever had.”6

Sam Fujiyama, a Japanese-American, had a major role in the show. He was played by Robert Ito, a Japanese-Canadian. Because of the presence of Sam, there are a number of wisecracks that may bother today’s viewer. Of the sixty episodes of Quincy that I watched this year, there were twelve comments on Asian ethnicity. Some examples: two mentions of being “inscrutable;” Sam: “Quincy, that’s a slur against the Chinese. I keep telling you I’m Japanese.” Quincy: “What’s the difference?”; Sam: “Fortune cookies? That’s Chinese, not Japanese.” Quincy: “Close enough.”; Sam: “The system may not be perfect, but it’s the best we’ve come up with.” Quincy: “Thank you Sam Fujiyama-Lincoln.” Quincy: “We’ll extract it in acid, in water, in acetone. If that doesn’t work, we’ll use soy sauce if we have to.” And so on.

Clearly, none of this is malicious, or even intended to insult, but times have changed. However, we also see the following: Quincy: “I ordered sushi,” as Danny brings out Italian dishes for everyone. Sam’s cousin: “Sushi is raw fish!” Sam: “Who eats that stuff?”

Quincy was aired in the US, Canada, the UK, and Italy. It can currently be seen in Australia, Germany, Japan, the US, and Sweden.6 There is also an “online home” to fans of Quincy, M.E.7

A doctor, fictional or real, who demands the truth and requires justice be done is someone whom one can admire.

 

References

  1. NA. “Character of Quincy based on Dr. Thomas Noguchi.” ND fiftiesweb.com
  2. John Bull, “How ‘Quincy M.E.’ changed medical history.” Culttvarchive.medium
  3. James Rosin, Quincy M.E.-The Television Series. Albany GA:BearManor Media, 2010.
  4. Tim Potvak, “Actor Jack Klugman was key player in Orphan Drug Act becoming law,” Asbestos.com, 2012.
  5. Joshua Green, “Jack Klugman’s secret, lifesaving legacy,” Washington Post, 25 Dec, 2012.
  6. Quincy,M.E. en.wikipedia.org
  7. quincyexaminer.com

 


 

HOWARD FISCHER, MD, was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan. He has had a longstanding interest in the portrayal of doctors in fiction, including in films and on television.

 

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