The famed pathologist William George MacCallum once asserted that “a successful pathologist is either single or unhappily married.” While his reasoning likely reflected his unique outlook on life shaped in part by his relationships with movie royalty he was perhaps in a small way prescient. Reflecting on my love of pathology as part of residency applications motivated me to explore what the love lives of pathologists look like in the media and there at least the single life certainly seems the superior one for pathologists.
The most notable recent portrayal of this situation can be seen on the Good Doctor in the person of Dr. Carly Lever. On its surface, the relationship between Dr. Lever and the eponymous Dr. Shaun Murphy seems like a refutation of the tired trope that pathologists are the ones who struggle with social ineptitude by allowing her to be the one to guide Shaun in more effectively functioning despite his severe autism. It does not call for very much deeper levels to see that while she helps him function better socially their relationship is profoundly unhealthy. At their first interaction, Shaun seeks to expedite results turn around with the threat of physical violence namely shattering the pathology department window with a rock. While Shaun never goes through with his threat he does repeatedly shatter Carly emotionally using with both his friends and himself justifying his actions in terms of his autism. Without completely rehashing a major story thread of the show it is clear that Shaun is unwilling to put the same effort into his relationship that he does into surgery the latter of which he undoubtedly loves. In almost every other aspect of the show, Shaun rapidly either learns a lesson or adopts a ‘fake it ’til he makes it’ approach for the sake of professional function.
Though I may be critiqued for oversensitivity in the relationship of Dr. Murphy and Lever, I see a reflection of the worst possible dynamic of surgeon and pathologist. He is undeniably exploitative of her personal and professional insight up to the point of utilizing their relationship to break protocol. It also represents the normalization of unhealthy dynamics as Dr. Lever makes very reasonable requests within the relationship for increased openness, distancing from hostile 3rd parties, and honesty only to have Shaun’s colleagues criticize her for being insensitive to his autism. I can sadly see similar justifications emerging in a purely professional setting. Pathology is already under-respected and underseen in medicine and I worry that seeing a pathologist’s role and personhood be acceptably minimized on a hit show may have wide-ranging consequences for the field.