Dr. Quinn: Old Lessons for New Times

JULY / AUG 2017: BY JESSICA SANTULLI

The year is 1867. A thirty-four-year-old single woman departs—against her mother’s wishes—from her wealthy Boston home to travel across the country for three days by train. But the train track ends, so she must travel the rest of the way in a bumpy, stuffy stagecoach. Out the window she spies bare-chested, face-painted Indians riding horses bareback, and realizes she is miles away from the tea-sipping social circles of Beacon Hill. There is no turning back now. Before long, she arrives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a small settlement near Denver. Why is she there, you might ask? She is answering an advertisement in the newspaper, asking for a town doctor.

Hold it right there: a woman doctor in the year 1867? Yes, you read that right. Dr. Michaela Quinn, M.D., the subject of the 1990s television drama, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1860, just eleven years after the famed Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to get a medical degree in the United States. The television show explores many universal themes, such as feminism, equal rights, family values, workplace conditions, religion, and more. But most of all, Dr. Quinn teaches audiences to ask questions, take chances, and stand up for what’s right.

In the pilot episode, Michaela Quinn does not receive a warm welcome in Colorado Springs—far from it. The Reverend Johnson, who accepted her application for the role of town doctor, misread her name as “Michael A. Quinn.” She must work to find patients who will let her treat them. When she goes into the saloon to examine Myra, a prostitute, Hank, the saloon’s proprietor, stops her.  “Ladies ain’t allowed,” Hank scowls, whiskey in hand.

“I’m not a lady, I’m a doctor,” replies Dr. Quinn, and marches defiantly into Myra’s room. This line sets the tone for the rest of the series.

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Dr. Quinn strikes a perfect balance between a refined, feminine woman, and an assertive, tough world-changer. After the death of Charlotte Cooper, the town midwife, Dr. Quinn inherits her three children and fearlessly resolves to care for them, despite her inexperience with motherhood. She grows weak at the knees whenever elusive mountain man Byron Sully shows up around town, a friend to the nearby Cheyenne Indians. Dr. Quinn talks with gunslingers and soldiers, assumes the role of lawyer, and runs for mayor. She learns plant-based remedies from the Cheyenne, and shares important medicine with their people, such as vaccines.

Dr. Quinn (called Dr. Mike by the townsfolk) often surpasses even the Reverend in Christian virtue. She sees God in all things, not just in Church on Sundays. In the second season, revivalist Sister Ruth asks if Dr. Mike believes in God, to which she replies, “Yes. Yes I do. I feel Him with me every time I deliver a baby, every time I look in my children’s’ faces, every time I lose a patient and every time I save one.” She believes “faith and medicine go hand in hand.”

Dr. Mike lives out this faith by standing up for people of every background, such as Grace and Robert E., the local African American couple, Jewish peddlers, and a Mexican widow. However, she draws the line when Walt Whitman comes to town and she discovers he is gay. After this, Dr. Mike does not want the poet spending so much time with her son. Sully assures her this orientation is nothing to fear. “The Cheyenne believe some folks are just naturally that way,” he explains. “They’re respected members of the tribe, just like everybody else.” This episode deals with a modern day issue in a positive way while reminding the audience Dr. Mike is not a perfect human being.

Although the series fictionalizes some aspects, Dr. Quinn humanizes the people of the Old West like no other program. The characters experience the same moral and societal battles we do. The modern viewer might not be a woman trying to make it as a doctor, but everyone has struggled to fit in, everyone has been outside his or her comfort zone. Dr. Quinn’s perseverance, drive, and fierceness inspire viewers to step out in faith in their own lives, even if they can’t see the end of the road.

Against the scenic backdrop of Pike’s Peak, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman teaches viewers lessons that apply to the Old West and the 21st Century.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Santulli is a graduate of Ramapo College with a passion for storytelling in all forms. She works in a library where she is surrounded by her favorite things: books, films, music, and people. On her free time she loves to run, hike, or just contemplate in nature. She credits God for any talents or abilities she possesses and hopes He is glorified through her life. Connect with her on her book blog, Librelephant.

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