‘Doogie Howser, M.D.’: The Cast Regularly Operated On Raw Chickens

We all know the story, but we still can’t get enough. Young, attractive interns and residents struggle to make the grade in big city hospitals, riding emotional waves of success and failure, both personally and professionally. Whether it’s the drama in the operating room or the bedroom that keeps us coming back for more, a successful medical drama must strive for accuracy and as much realism as possible.

So, how do the cast and crew of our favorite shows simulate those graphic medical procedures that keep us on the edge of our seats? The star of Doogie Howser, MD shared a secret that might surprise you.

The skin Doogie sutured on camera came from a local supermarket

Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris | Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

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In Doogie’s case, we can swap “attractive” for “adorable,” but the result was much the same for a swooning audience of teenage girls who fell hard for the youngest TV doctor ever. When Neil Patrick Harris debuted in the title role of Doogie Howser, M.D. in 1989, ABC executives were nervous, but audiences loved the fresh-faced medical prodigy with a touching backstory.

Not only was Doogie a genius and the son of a medical professional, but his prior battle with childhood leukemia lent credibility to his apparent maturity and dedication to medicine.

It’s hard enough for an adult to keep all that medical jargon straight, but what about scenes that require realistic surgical techniques? Harris says he used raw chicken. “They gave us suture packs and told us to go to Ralph’s and get a chicken breast. And actually, we would use raw chicken on set. They’d cover all the edges of it with gauze and such, so it looked essentially like skin. You got to suture fast, that’s one of those believability issues,” Harris said in an interview with Entertainment

Real surgeons actually practice delicate operations on chicken parts

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Using chicken to simulate human flesh on the set of Doogie Howser, M.D.  was not so far-fetched after all. Chicken shares some important similarities with human anatomy that make it ideal for more than TV surgeries. In an article for Stat, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald Bae revealed that in the past, surgeons practiced tendon repairs on chicken feet from Chinatown markets, and learned to suture tiny blood vessels using chicken breasts and drumsticks.  

In May 2020, the University of Wisconsin Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery unveiled its “blue-blood chicken thigh simulator” for microvascular surgery training.

“The chicken thigh has some vessels that are very close to the human blood vessel in terms of the size and the consistency of the tissue,” said Dr. Samuel Poore who helped develop the system. “We perfuse the chicken thigh with saline that’s colored with blue food coloring, and we can really simulate the natural flow of blood.”

Plastic surgery residents are using the system to practice delicate procedures in a risk-free setting. How cool is that?

Was ‘Doogie Howser, M.D.’ medically accurate?

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The series ran for 4 seasons during which young Doogie strove to balance teenage angst with the demands of a professional career. Much of the story centered on the way people perceived him because of his age and his struggle to be taken seriously as a doctor.

According to Mental Floss, the series also struggled to be taken seriously, especially by medical professionals. “Doogie Howser would have had to graduate from college at nine, start medical school at 10, graduate from medical school at 14, then, after one year of internship and one year of residency, obtain his license to practice at 16,” Harvard Medical School admissions officer Helen Rakin said, adding, “I don’t think so.”

Celebrity Doctor Mike Varshavski rated the show at No. 15 for medical accuracy. “I can’t believe it’s this low on the list,” he said, “but the reality is it’s an older show, so the medical accuracy is just not up to par to our current standards.”

There’s no denying that a show about a sixteen-year-old surgical resident had more entertainment value than realism, but then all medical dramas walk a fine line between fantasy and reality.