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Frontier Doctor

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"I have great respect for those of the medical profession who have taken up their position in the remote districts of Scotland and devote themselves to the healing art under most disadvantageous circumstances... I have in mind an insular doctor who has a great deal to do of midnight boating in glacial weather, and whose bills are often paid not in coin but in fleece off a sheep's back."
Daniel Turner Holmes, Literary Tours in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

A physician who works in an isolated or remote community.

While the inhabitants of The Wild West were tougher than case-hardened nails, they still could get hurt and sick. So there was a need for doctors, and the Frontier Doctor came west to fill that need. The frontier doctor needed to be tough and resourceful, since supplies were scarce, and the latest equipment and medicines were seldom at hand. He'd often be called upon to travel long distances at any hour of the day or night, and might even treat sick animals if no veterinarian was handy (the opposite — veterinarian instead of a doctor — is usually Played for Laughs). The frontier doctor may be a woman.

With all that said, anyone who'd leave the soft, prosperous life of a doctor in the East had to have a pretty good reason. In fiction, the Frontier Doctor is often flawed. Perhaps he is an alcoholic (so he's taking nips from a flask while sewing you up), or he killed a man back East, or is a Wide-Eyed Idealist who volunteered to come west without thinking it through. Which isn't to say that the characters in a Western aren't grateful that he's there to patch up their bullet holes, sew them up and cure any pox.

The stress may turn him into a Dr. Jerk, given time.

As the territory becomes more civilized, and towns are established, this character becomes "the town doctor", with better access to equipment and supplies, but not much more rest as he or she's still basically the only physician for miles.

Not limited to the Wild West; may also occur in an isolated military outpost, an Eerie Arctic Research Station or a tiny space colony.


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    Anime and Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Levi Mosley is the only doctor in town in Copperhead. Considering how many alien species are in the population he must be quite knowledgeable - even more so for successfully treating patients while staggeringly drunk.
  • Dr. Leonard McCoy in the aptly titled Star Trek comic series Leonard McCoy: Frontier Doctor. Set between Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the series follows a bearded Dr. McCoy as he works with the Starfleet frontier doctors program.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Discworld as expanded by A.A. Pessimal, the young Witch Rebecka Smith-Rhodes gets an extensive training in everyday witching from the age of eleven, first in Ankh-Morpork, then in Lancre and the Chalk. Aged nearly seventeen, she is invited to work in her mother's native country, Rimwards Howondaland, a place where there are no Witches and there is a need for healers and "healthcare practitioners". note  She lives in the rurality around the town of Bitterfontein, a place that has only one elderly and frequently drunken doctor. Bekki, the first Lancre-trained Witch to work in Howondaland, discovers a land where the two white ethnicities deeply mistrust each other and the majority of the population is treated as if it only counts as a pool of cheap labour. She gets on with it, being uniquely placed to deal with all three groups equally and to do the job that is in front of her.
  • Due to the way the Sectors work, Sephiroth in Seventh Endmost Vision is a mixture between this and a Back-Alley Doctor; he works in Sector 5 as a doctor, and while normally living in a big city wouldn't qualify as the frontier, the neglect in the slums by the city's official powers, the presence of monsters in the nearby junkyards, and the looming threat of the Wasteland around Midgar (also full of monsters) makes his work come across more like this.

  • In Curse of the Undead, Doc Carter is a typical frontier doctor dealing with a strange wasting disease killing young women in the town. His chances of finding a cure are hampered because the disease does not have a natural cause. Even so, his interference gets him killed by the vampire responsible, both to halt his investigation and to stir up trouble between Doc's daughter and the neighboring Cattle Baron.
  • In Day of the Evil Gun, Warfield and Forbes arrive in a small town where they are hoping to resupply and gather intelligence about the location of the Apache camp. However, the town is in in the the grip of a cholera outbreak. The town doctor is run off his feet not only attending to the sick, but burning the homes and possessions of those who have died.
  • In Dead Again in Tombstone, Dr. Goldsworthy is the town doctor in Silver River. He first appears when he pulls Guerrero out of the river and saves his life. However, he turns out to be far more than a simple frontier doctor.
  • The Forgotten Frontier, a 1931 documentary about the nurses of the Frontier Health Service tending to the desperately poor mountain people of Appalachia. They're nurses, not doctors, but they fill this trope in every other way, riding horseback for fifty miles at a shot over difficult muddy mountain roads to deliver babies and take care of the sick. One actual doctor is shown in the last segment, going on a 25-mile ride that includes fording a river in order to tend to the gunshot victim.
  • Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning: Doc Murphy, the forts physician, is the only doctor in thousands of miles, and patches up Bridgette's hurt foot and tests people for signs of werewolf infection by seeing how they react to leeches.
  • Grim Prairie Tales: Dr. Leaderman is both the doctor and The Sheriff of the tiny town where the fourth story takes place. He is not very good at either role.
  • In The Gunfight at Dodge City, Doc Sam Tremaine is the only doctor in Dodge City and claims that he wants to see the town tamed so he will have less work to do. Over the course of the film, he supports Bat in almost everything he does, including acting as a croupier at the Lady Gay, serving as jailer, and helping Bat to hijack a stagecoach.
  • Abigail in High Plains Invaders is actually a nurse, but she runs the town infirmary and fulfills the role of doctor.
  • In The Man from Colorado, Judge Owen Devereaux's uncle Doc Merriam is the town's doctor, and the only authority figure trusted by everyone in town.
  • No Name on the Bullet: Luke Canfield is the only doctor in the town of Lordsburg and, despite his self-deprecation, an exceptionally good one. He is also the town vet.
  • In One Foot in Hell, Doc Seltzer is the town doctor of Blue Springs: a truly decent man who seems to be the moral centre of the town. He comes to aid Ellie in the middle of the night without question and without thought of payment, and does his best to save her. Tellingly, he is not not one of the townsfolk Mitch blames for her death.
  • Dr. Lazarus in Outland. In a fairly hard sci-fi Space Western, she starts off as largely jaded, acknowledging that doctor aboard a mining colony is one spaceflight away from a malpractice suit. She does eventually come around and provide vital aid to the film's hero, Marshall O'Niel.
  • The hero of Outlaw Women is Dr. Bob Ridgeway, a frontier doctor hijacked at gunpoint to become the town doctor of the Lady Land Outlaw Town of Las Mujeres.
  • The Quick and the Dead: Redemption has one whose main function is to examine the fallen competitors and declare "This man is dead!". Spotted Horse turns out to be Not Quite Dead. Later, he plays a vital role when he keeps the scavengers away from the Lady's body as she is Faking the Dead.
  • A The Three Stooges short has the boys becoming these, at the urgings of the professor of their medical school.

  • Eccentric assistant Callum from later series of All Creatures Great And Small left to become a Frontier Vet, motivated not by any lack of skill but by his vast sense of adventure. For a while he practiced in Nova Scotia, then when it became too soft and civilised for him there he took himself off to Papua New Guinea instead.
  • In the novel Christy, Neil MacNeill is the doctor of a remote, impoverished Appalachian community in the early 1900s.
  • On the Discworld witches perform this role in out of the way communities such as Lancre, which is part of Pratchett's tendency to reference real world history and myth into his books. Many places in the British Isles used to rely on people who often styled themselves as witches, wizards or mystics for medicines as well as more practical matters like midwifery.
  • The Great Brain: Papa Married a Mormon and Uncle Will and the Fitzgerald Curse feature Doc Tethers, a well-educated but extremely coarse doctor in a western mining town. It's implied that he left the East due to his disfigured son not fitting in with society.
  • 'Doc' Leroy in the novels of J.T. Edson. 'Doc' was studying medicine when his father's murder caused him to drop out and take work as a cowhand. He spent a lot of time using his medical expertise as a doctor in a Closest Thing We Got manner. He eventually completed his qualifications in Doc Leroy, M.D..
  • Much Ado About Grubstake:
    • Dr. Bernaise treats people with fevers and bar fight injuries and tends to prescribe alcohol for both himself and his patients. His family claims that they only live in Grubstake for his wife's health, but this is later implied to be untrue, suggesting he can't find work in bigger towns.
    • Wing Lee the bakery owner gives herbal remedies to people who are unsatisfied with Dr. Bernaise's treatment. He has a good record of results, and saves Arley's dogs' lives after Lockwood has them poisoned.
  • Star Wars: Kenobi: Minor character Doc Mell, the physician of the Pika Oasis, is a Mon Calamari. Like a traditional Frontier Doctor, he and his son have left an easy life for a much harder one, in this case because they're members of an aquatic species on a desert planet. They wear special cowls that keep their skin moist.
  • In Time Enough for Love, Lazarus Long is living on a frontier planet and has mildly unpleasant dealings with the alcoholic (and only) doctor on the planet.
  • Wagons West: If he wasn't one before he joined the wagon train, Dr. Martin definitely became one as he cured whatever ailed the other pioneers taking the Oregon Trail.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Parodied in a series of The Armstrong and Miller Show sketches. "I work in Botswana, saving lives. Do YOU?"
  • Dead Man's Gun:
    • After delivering a baby, Dr. Butler is paid with the gun and it awakens painful memories in "The Healer".
    • In "The Oath", a female doctor, who now owns the gun, must overcome the prejudice towards someone in her position to cure an epidemic.
  • Doc Cochran of Deadwood. Man's got an extremely curmudgeonly disposition, and a glare that'd spook the eyebrows off a Mentat, but he's a compassionate soul tryin' to hold onto some fuckin' humanity in that godforsaken camp. If people'd listen to him more often, he might actually be able to do his job. He's also got a boatload of psychological trauma from his time in the Civil War, so the man's altogether a whole barrel o' laughs.
  • More of a post-apocalyptic Scavenger World than the frontier, but Defiance has Doc Yewll, who responds to having a patient threaten her with her own force-scalpel by threatening to throw them out in the street.
  • Dr. Michaela Quinn of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
  • Simon Tam of Firefly is a Frontier Doctor in space, down to having once worked in a Hospital Paradiso on a Core World and being driven to the Frontier by a conflict with the law. A couple of episodes show more traditional versions (traditional, that is, apart from being on alien planets 500 years in the future).
  • The Flying Doctors: Cooper's Crossing isn't exactly a metropolis, and a lot of what the flying doctors do is in far more remote settings with even less equipment. And the homesteaders are just as ornery as the ones in The Wild West.
  • Forever: Henry traveled in North America in the mid-19th century, working for the Hudson's Bay Company and exploring as far as the Klondike decades before its famous gold rush.
  • Frontier doctors feature in two successive episodes of Frontier Circus. In "Dr. Sam", a female doctor from back east temporarily joins the circus as circus doctor, hoping that the circus will grant her more freedom than the straitlaced world back east. In "The Hunter and the Hunted", Tony has to fetch a doctor after Casey is badly injured in an accident, only to find that the doctor is being hunted by a gang of outlaws.
  • Dr. Galen Adams, usually identified simply as "Doc," on Gunsmoke. The character was dramatically changed for the television series, however; see the Radio folder below.
  • In Hec Ramsey, Doc Coogan is the town doctor for New Prospect. Because, as he puts it, "folks are so damn healthy", he also works as a barber. He is a good doctor, but a terrible barber. Hec eventually ropes him as The Coroner.
  • Outlander: Claire becomes this once the Frasers immigrate to the colonies and establish Fraser's Ridge. Claire handles nearly all medical emergencies that occur on the Ridge and the surrounding homesteads.
  • Star Trek: Many of the doctors who serve on starships or remote outposts could qualify as frontier doctors given how they work in remote and isolated communities.
    • Dr. McCoy in Star Trek: The Original Series is perhaps Trek's outstanding example of a Frontier Doctor—resourceful in the face of alien ailments, preferring simple homespun methods when possible, but cantankerous, eccentric, and not entirely happy with his lot (he fled to space on the heels of a divorce). Star Trek was pretty much the original Space Western, after all, and actor DeForest Kelley had an extensive background in westerns.
    • In the first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Bashir comments about his new post saying this, offending Major Kira in the process. (This is her home, and it doesn't seem like a distant frontier to this restless native.) On the other hand, he does go about occasionally making house-calls to neighboring planets, (including Bajor a time or two).
      • Bashir later meets a classmate who took a prestige assignment with a starship, and she complains how boring her own assignment was as opposed to his own (the writers also uses this as a jab against The Next Generation and Voyager's problem of the week episodes compared to the arcs in Deep Space Nine). Keep in mind that Bashir said that he was thrilled to be assigned to DS9 for the excitement of working on the frontier, and that even if he hypothetically had a choice of any posting it's still the one he would have picked.
    • Star Trek: Voyager: The Emergency Medical Hologram (a.k.a. the Doctor) also could be considered a frontier doctor, as he is the only one serving Voyager, a very remote and isolated Federation community in a part of the galaxy where no Federation starship has been, dealing with illnesses and injuries that his creator Doctor Louis Zimmerman never even thought of when programming him.
  • In When Calls the Heart, it's revealed that Dr. Carson Shepherd came to the tiny Western Canadian town after his wife needed brain surgery, which he failed to complete successfully and was blamed by her grieving parents.

  • "Doc" Adams of Gunsmoke. The radio version was actually Dr. Calvin Moore, who'd killed a man in a duel and changed his name to avoid the man's vengeful friends; the television version was Dr. Galen Adams, and did not have such a dark backstory.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Most any "healer" PC - such as a cleric in D&D - in the vast majority of RPGs will fit the bill, although they often have access to magic in addition to gumption and bandages. In fact, in 3rd edition a cleric's lack of skill points and tendency to use Intelligence as a Dump Stat might mean that they have no actual training in the use of nonmagical healing practices.

    Video Games 
  • Dr. Lyle White in Assassin's Creed III starts a new life in the frontier Homestead, in order to help a couple deliver a baby (and also because the Redcoats were dragging his name through the mud back in Boston).
  • Feodor Kuchin of Infinite Space has dedicated his life to bringing medical aid to frontier planets, low-profile work that doesn't generate donations for his employer, the Medic Organization. And then events conspire to make him join up as ship's doctor to an underage adventurer.
  • Fallout: New Vegas has something of a New Old West vibe due to being a post-apocalyptic game set in the Mojave Desert. As such, any doctor you meet in smaller towns are bound to be this. A good example is Doc Mitchell, the man who manages to save your life after you get shot in the head.

    Web Video 
  • The Rural Medicine doctor in Dr Glaucomflecken is a modern embodiment of this trope: living and working in a rural and sparsely-populated community, he has to meet his patients' wide variety of medical needs with limited resources, even as the patients are reluctant to get medical attention.

    Real Life 
  • "Doc" Holliday, of Real Life and many, many fictional accounts, was a frontier dentist, but is far better known for his gambling and gunfighting. (His consumptive cough apparently tended to scare off clients.)
  • James Herriot sort of counts, working in a fairly remote and rural part of Yorkshire with sometimes limited resources. One of the partners in his practice, Tristan Farnon, is another veterinary example: He was in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in WWII and assigned to care for mules, camel, and cattle on remote farms in India and Burma.