Just like the characters they portray and the real-life professionals they honor, we decided to go big (instead of go home) with this one and rank the most awesome nurses portrayed on TV over the years, starting with #12 and ending with our choice for the most amazing TV nurse of all.
Character: Samantha Taggart
Played by:Linda Cardellini
TV show: ER (appeared 2003-2009)
Why she’s here on our list: Sam is a tough, independent single mom trying to raise her son on her own, while trying to make it in the ER. Her character ultimately swims – not sinks – throughout a series of crises both within and beyond the walls of Chicago’s fictional County General Hospital.
Character: Veronica Callahan
Played by: Taylor Schilling
TV show: Mercy (appeared on the show’s only season in 2009/2010)
Why she’s here on our list: Callahan is the show’s main protagonist, a nurse freshly returned home from Iraq and forced to do her job while fighting multiple inner demons, including alcoholism. An interesting character from a fresh show that was killed before its time.
Character: Peter Petrelli
Played by: Milo Ventimiglia
TV show: Heroes (appeared 2006-2010)
Why he’s here on our list: Unique not just because this character is a male nurse (there are three on this list, including one in the “Honorable Mention” section) but also because he has super powers. (The only such listee with such an attribute…wait…yes, the only such one…)
Character: Carla Espinosa
Played by: Judy Reyes
TV show: Scrubs (appeared 2001-2009)
Why she’s here on our list: Nurses have tough, soul-challenging jobs that necessitate a certain amount of gruffness or black humor, but they also can have a lot of fun – or at least look at things in a way that puts a smile on their faces or others. Such is the case with no-nonsense wife and hospital staffer Carla Espinosa, constantly reminding us not to take $#!7 or sweat the small stuff.
Character: Carol Hathaway
Played by: Julianna Marguilies
TV show: ER (appeared 1994-2000, 2009)
Why she’s here on our list: Scorned by co-workers for some tough decisions as head nurse and loved by audiences for her strong personality and on-again-off-again romance with George Clooney: This character helped record-breaking ER (the only show on this list more than once) define Thursday nights on NBC for more than a decade, including the performance of one episode that was filmed and put to air LIVE.
Character: Christina Hawthorne
Played by: Jada Pinkett-Smith
TV show: HawthoRNe (appeared 2009-2010)
Why she’s here on our list: A brilliantly-portrayed title role as a modern-day head nurse. Pinkett-Smith doesn’t always follow the rules, but – in a bravado of House – she does what she thinks is right and always seems to be able to convince others that she’s indeed right (or at least to go along with things until her hunches are proven correct – almost all the time, because it is TV after all…)
Character: Nurse Jackie
Played by: Edie Falco
TV show: Nurse Jackie (appeared 2009-2010-)
Why she’s here on our list: As Showtime officially says it, Nurse Jackie is “A drug-addicted nurse who struggles to find a balance between the demands of her frenetic job at a New York City hospital and an array of personal dramas.” Though you’ll notice no shortage or nurse characters with personal demons on this list, Nurse Jackie makes it this high on our list courtesy of brilliant writing that brings the protagonist of this story to life and shows the drama of some of the things real-life nurses in large metro areas face everyday.
Character: Dell Parker
Played by: Chris Lowell
TV show: Private Practice (appeared 2007-2010)
Why he’s here on our list: One of the only honestly-portrayed male nurses on TV – albeit also dangled in front of female audiences early on as the straight-male-office-hottie – Lowell’s Dell Parker eventually transforms from a pink-scrub-wearing nurse/receptionist to a midwifery student with a bright future ahead as a character and role-model…then the writers killed-off his character. If not for that fact, we’d have probably thrown Dell in the #4 or 3 spot.
Character: Helen Rosenthal
Played by: Christina Pickles
TV show: St. Elsewhere (appeared 1982-1988)
Why she’s here on our list: The head nurse on the ward, Helen Rosenthal was caring and constantly competent. One of the most senior nurses at St. Eligius, she was the only such staff member who was on a first-name basis with much of the senior medical staff. What was incredible about Nurse Rosenthal wasn’t the drama or turmoil in her character’s life, but the excellence – her example as the constant steady rock that so many aspire to be.
Character: Christine Chapel
Played by: Majel Barrett Roddenberry
TV show: Star Trek, the original series (appeared 1964 and 1966-1969)
Why she’s here on our list: Being a nurse is hard enough though you’d think it would be easier by the time the 23rd Century rolled around. But week-in-week-out, poor Nurse Chapel had to put up with Klingon battle cruiser attacks, perils from unknown alien encounters, and the curmudgeonly demands of Dr. McCoy. By way of thanks, she later got to make a cameo in several Star Trek films as Dr. Chapel.
Character: Abby Lockhart
Played by: Maura Tierney
TV show: ER (appeared 1999-2009)
Why she’s here on our list: Over the decade she worked as a nurse, medical student, and eventually doctor at County General, Abby remained one of the most complex characters to ever don nursing scrubs on TV. Her trials, triumphs, mistakes and redemptions weren’t just a reflection of the challenges faced in the real nursing world, but an object lesson in finding success, albeit along a stretching, broken road.
Character: Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan
Played by: Loretta Swit
TV show: M*A*S*H* (appeared 1972-1983)
Why she’s here on our list: One of the first nursing characters many still think of when they think of nurses portrayed on TV is our pick for the number-one all-time-TV-nurse. “Hot Lips” appeared on essentially what was both a comedy and poignant drama at the same time. Above all, Margaret Houlihan stands out for being a portrayal of a nurse who did her job under extreme circumstances while remaining both a woman and a human being.
Honorable mention (nurse characters from non-TV continuing series/movie franchises):
– Madame Pomfrey from the Harry Potter book and film series
– Gaylord “Greg” Focker from the films Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and Little Fockers
Got an opinion about our ranking? Someone we left off who HAS to be on this list?
(We couldn’t – for the life of us – think of any nurse characters on Grey’s Anatomy worth mentioning, nor could we wrap out heads around which nurse to feature from General Hospital or any other soaps.)
Get in on the TV nurse debate below…