Monster M*A*S*H

"The Major is a paradox: A woman of considerable passion, she is also a stickler for military correctness. I wouldn't mind making a grab for her myself, but I don't know how to do that and salute her at the same time..."

~Hawkeye Pierce about Margaret (Dear Dad)

Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan is one of the original characters in the book M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker. Her character appeared in the 1970 film version, played by Sally Kellerman, and later in the long-running TV series by Loretta Swit.

About Margaret[]

Margaret is a member of the Army Nurse Corps and, as the highest ranking female in the 4077th, she is the unit's chief nurse, a role that she takes very seriously. She is devoted to her army career, having been born and raised an "army brat". She cites her father, Colonel Alvin "Howitzer Al" Houlihan, as her role model. In earlier episodes Margaret said that her father is deceased, but he appears in the season 9 episode Father's Day. Little is known or revealed about her mother except that she and her father are divorced, that her mother is an alcoholic and a kleptomaniac. Margaret once mentioned that she sends half of her salary to her mother as a remittance, half of which goes to get her sober while the other half goes toward bail money.

She entered nursing school in 1938 and graduated in 1942, at which point she joined the Army. It is unknown whether she served overseas or stateside during WWII.

Portrayal in the film[]

Sally Kellerman as Houlihan in the 1970 film version of MASH

Margaret's initial arrival at the 4077th is depicted in the 1970 film; Colonel Blake (Roger Bowen) repeatedly and incorrectly refers to her as Major O'Houlihan. After he shows her around the OR during surgery, they happen upon Trapper John (Elliott Gould) just as he punches Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) for wrongly accusing an orderly of killing his patient. Margaret is appalled and Blake promises that Trapper will be punished.

Margaret later gets into a discussion with Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) to get his opinion about the nurses that work with him, but when she asserts that he shouldn't be so informal with his staff, especially the enlisted, Hawkeye becomes annoyed and, calling her a "regular army clown", gets up and leaves.

Margaret is even more appalled by all the goings-on in camp, particularly when the others sing a bawdy version of "Hail to the Chief" for Trapper who was just named chief surgeon, and Margaret becomes Trapper's prime target for sexual insults and innuendo. At this point, she conspires with Frank to write a letter of complaint to army brass. After they finish the letter, they find themselves mutually attracted to one another.

"Hot Lips"[]

In the film, Margaret unwittingly gives herself the infamous nickname of "Hot Lips" when she and Frank have a wild tryst in her tent, unaware that the public address microphone has been planted under her cot so that Trapper, Duke Forrest and some others can listen in on them in the orderly room. When they hear Margaret growling "Ohh, Frank my lips are hot.. Kiss my hot lips!", Trapper decides the rest of the camp needs to hear them, and so they broadcast Frank and Margaret's tryst over the PA, but their rendezvous quickly comes to an end when they hear themselves over the loudspeaker. Their relationship remains a brief one when, after Hawkeye quietly taunts Frank in the Mess Tent about his dalliance with her, Frank jumps over the table and attacks him, after which he is permanently shipped out of camp for psychiatric evaluation.

While Margaret is suitably mortified by the microphone prank, Trapper and the others are not yet through with her. The surgeons later get into a discussion over whether or not Margaret is a natural blonde, and Duke makes a friendly wager with Hawkeye that she is not. To ensure they all can see the truth, one morning the nurses make their way to the showers, and all except for Margaret are detained by the men for varying reasons. Once Margaret is inside the shower alone, Trapper gives a signal, and all at once, the shower's tent flap abruptly raises revealing Margaret naked to the rest of the camp. In angry hysterics, Margaret storms into Henry's tent screaming, "This isn't a hospital! It's an insane asylum!!", and demands that Henry do something about the others, threatening to resign her commission if he doesn't. But when Henry calls her out on her intention, she trudges out in humiliation and total defeat.

After the shower incident Margaret begins to mellow out and gradually becomes a member of the gang. She takes it upon herself to be the head cheerleader when the unit plays against General Hammond's football team, and is in a relationship with Duke by the time orders come down rotating Duke and Hawkeye home.

Portrayal in the TV series[]

Loretta Swit's portrayal of Margaret in the early seasons of the TV series differs very little from that of Sally Kellerman's in the film. Initially, Margaret is stern and no-nonsense, but behind the scenes she is willing to buck regulations for her own gain, using her sex appeal to get her own way with higher ranking officers, which she often did prior to her arrival at the 4077th.

In tandem with Frank (Larry Linville in the series), Margaret spends the early part of the series battling Hawkeye and Trapper as well as constantly criticizing Henry's lax style of leadership. Her dissatisfaction with Henry's command, or her perceived lack thereof, frequently motivates her to go over his head and file formal complaints with Army brass. This recurring gambit culminates in The Trial of Henry Blake, in which she and Frank bring formal charges of treason against Henry, but the charges are dropped when it is revealed at his court martial hearing that Henry actually donated medical supplies to an orphanage run by an American in North Korea; Frank and Margaret attempted to suppress this evidence by having Hawkeye and Trapper put under house arrest, but they escaped and made it to the hearing just in time.

Relationships & Marriage[]

Frank Burns[]

Despite her admonitions to the others for their immoral behavior, Margaret is in an ongoing affair with the married Frank Burns throughout the first four seasons of the series. A recurring joke is that Margaret and Frank are convinced that nobody else knows about them, but their affair is actually a poorly-kept secret throughout the Army. According to Hawkeye, "the only one who doesn't know about them is General MacArthur's pipe stuffer".

Frank often makes mention of his wife Louise, which never sits well with Margaret, who often hints none too subtly that Frank should leave his wife for her.

Donald Penobscott[]

Her relationship with Frank ends when it finally dawns on her that Frank only wanted Margaret for an affair, and had no intention of leaving his wife. With this in mind, early in season 5, when she returns from R&R in Tokyo she shocks the camp with her announcement that she is now engaged to Lt. Colonel Donald Penobscott. Frank is crushed by the news, but even more so by Margaret's incessant praise of Donald in his presence during surgery, causing Frank to "accidentally" stab her finger when she assists him. Margaret is convinced that Frank did it deliberately, but Hawkeye puts her in her place when he points out her insensitivity. When she argues that Hawkeye treats Frank the same way, Hawkeye counters that he never does it when Frank is down, but "only when he wasn't looking".

Margaret and Donald marry in camp at the end of season 5 and go to Tokyo for their honeymoon, but in Fade Out, Fade In, Margaret returns to camp early and is very sullen; she later reveals that after the first couple of days of their honeymoon Donald "seemed to shut down completely". Making matters worse, she later finds out that Donald's mother, who does not like Margaret at all, blackballed her from membership in the D.A.R. (Mail Call Three).

The distance between Margaret and Donald soon puts a strain not only on their marriage, but also on Margaret's emotions, as one moment she is on an even keel, but the next she'll either be fuming over something Donald did or said, or violently pining to be with him; in most of either of these cases Radar's office (and sometimes Radar himself) becomes the most common indirect target of Margaret's physical tantrums.

Their frequent absence from one another is the catalyst for Donald's philandering:

  • Margaret finds out that a new nurse in camp had had an affair with Donald right before she arrived (In Love and War).
  • In Comrades in Arms, Margaret receives a steamy letter from Donald, but he wrote the letter for another woman and mistakenly mailed it to Margaret. Ironically, in the same episode and the next, Margaret has her own steamy encounter with none other than her nemesis Hawkeye Pierce, though she eventually reconciles with him and begins a proper friendship.

By the beginning of Season 7, Donald promises to work things out with her, but he effectively ends all hope of reconciliation when he permanently transfers stateside to San Francisco. Initially livid at Donald's cowardice and the fact that he himself requested the transfer, she then blames herself for "the place I picked to have a marriage"; when Hawkeye asks what she's going to do, she tearfully tells him she is going to get a divorce (Peace On Us).

Aside from her marriage and relationship failures, she has also remarked on at least one missed opportunity. In Hot Lips and Empty Arms, Margaret confesses that she let a rival marry a rich doctor; they ended up with a fine house, a swimming pool, and two children, all of which Margaret bitterly regrets could have been hers.

After Donald[]

After her divorce from Donald, Margaret finds herself in occasional romances. Hawkeye once noted to his father that she has "considerable passion", which she has to keep in check as most of the men she finds herself with are only interested in indulging themselves in her exceptional physical charms. When she confides in Hawkeye that she is looking for love but still hasn't found it, Hawkeye compassionately tells her that she will know when she finally finds it (Stars and Stripe).

Margaret's temporary suitors include:

  • Major Winchester, Frank's replacement at the 4077th. Initially over several episodes the two attempt to start a romance, but when they realize there is no chemistry, they decide to remain friends instead.
  • Sgt. Jack Scully, an AWOL soldier whom she first meets in A Night at Rosie's. They appear to hit it off, and Scully reappears in two later episodes before Margaret realizes that they are not compatible.
  • Captain Tom Greenleigh, a reporter from Stars and Stripes who is in camp to do a story on Charles. She ignores him at first, but he eventually convinces her to go on a date with him, and the two spend one night together. He never appears again. (Major Ego)
  • Dr. Myron "Bud" Herzog, a traveling optometrist. Margaret's "romance" with Herzog is actually a false pretense for her actual situation: she wants to get her eyes examined to see if she needs glasses, which he finds out she does not- at least not yet, as she only has a mild allergy. He gives her some drops to clear her eyes up, and checks them again on a follow-up visit to camp. Margaret is aware that Hawkeye and B.J. believe she has a thing for Dr. Herzog and decides to perpetuate the ruse just to drive them crazy. (The Foresight Saga)
  • Per Johannsen, a UN delegate from Sweden, whom Margaret instantly becomes smitten with. Her attention and advances leave Per feeling awkward, but when he finally opens up about a recent injury that left him impotent, she apologizes for putting him on the spot, and the two spend the night talking (UN, The Night and the Music).
  • An unnamed pilot whom Margaret dumped when she realized they were not compatible (A War For All Seasons)

Personal life[]

Outwardly, Margaret seems to have herself all together, but in her private moments she is shown to have a highly vulnerable side that she goes to great measures to keep hidden from everyone else, no matter how close they are to her. She suffers from extreme loneliness stemming from her unluckiness in relationships, and she deeply yearns for true love and emotional support, and though she fights hard to keep her emotions bottled up, she cannot always control them:

  • In The Nurses, she tearfully opens up, to their surprise, about how she feels put off by the way they treat her, as though she is not welcome in their social circle.
  • In Images, a stray dog to which she has been secretly giving food is killed by a jeep; Hawkeye notices her trying not to cry and follows her to her tent and tells her she needs to let it out, which she eventually does on Hawkeye's shoulder; all of this happens after Margaret bears down too hard on Lieutenant Cooper, a new nurse who initially cannot hack being in the OR, but after Cooper decides to adopt Margaret's callous personality as her own (and then after the dog is killed), Margaret comes to a new understanding of what Cooper is going through and backs down.

In keeping with her attempts to maintain her hidden emotions, Margaret usually does not let anyone get too close to her. In The Birthday Girls, Margaret confides in Klinger that when she was younger she tried making friends only to have to permanently part from them every time her father was transferred, which always hurt. She eventually decided she would not let anyone get close enough to break her heart again, and began keeping more to herself.

Relationship with others[]

Margaret has revealed the names of only four close friends she has had in her lifetime:

  • Wally Crichton, whom she dated while in nursing school [College]
  • Trisha Spaulding, a friend in nursing school who later became a rival when she got "lucky" enough to marry a rich doctor-has two children, an expensive house and a swimming pool, all of which angered Margaret when she realized she could have had that kind of life instead of being in the military life with a terrible social life (Hot Lips and Empty Arms).
  • Captain Lorraine Anderson, whom Margaret confesses that she is jealous of, as she still has the free and open spirit that they both once had, while Margaret does not.
  • Captain Helen Whitfield, who is revealed to have a serious drinking problem, which very nearly gets herself (and Margaret) in deep trouble after Whitfield almost gives a patient the wrong type blood in OR.

Despite her incessant criticisms of Henry, Hawkeye and Trapper, she didn't seem to dislike them on a personal scale. The three of them usually let her criticisms and insults roll off their collective backs, though not always vice versa. She was able to put aside her personal prejudices and worked well with them in the OR; in the film, though Trapper called Margaret a "pain in the ass", he also said that she is "a damned good nurse". And like Frank and the others, she reacted in shocked sadness when she heard that Henry had been killed on the way home.

Later seasons[]

In contrast to Henry Blake, Margaret gets along very well with his replacement, Colonel Potter, who becomes a father figure to her. It is Potter who counsels her on whether or not to divorce Donald, instructing her to go with her gut feeling, which she declares is to divorce him. She also eventually relaxes her stance with the other surgeons, especially Hawkeye after the events of Comrades in Arms, during which they get lost in the wilderness and are driven into each other's arms during an artillery barrage. After that, she confides in him more frequently, and even (as revealed during a flashback scene in Where There's a Will, There's A War) trades jokes with Hawkeye until the both of them are in hysterics. Overall, in the later seasons of the series, Margaret mellows to a more reasonable member of the staff who learns to get along better with the others, both professionally and personally, and is able to better temper her authority with humanity. While many fans approved of Margaret's change of heart, some did not, believing that she worked better as a strict, rigid antagonist, but in her defense it should be pointed out that in the earlier seasons, Margaret, even at her worst, still showed more compassion than Frank, who often conveyed little to no humanity at all.


Several times throughout the series, the awards that Major Houlihan had earned during her service in the army could be seen on her uniform. The awards include:

  • World War II Victory Medal - when Potter reviews her service record after his arrival in September 19, 1952, he remarks she has been in the service ten years {1952-10=1942}. Presumably, she joined after she graduated from nursing school, although there are no details if she was stationed in the US or overseas in either the Pacific or European theaters.

Real-life Inspiration[]

Main article: Prototypes for Margaret Houlihan

Several real-life Korean War MASH nurses are said to be the prototypes for the character of "Hot Lips Houlihan". Most notable among them is Capt. Ruth Dickson, Chief Nurse of the 8055th MASH. Also mentioned is one "Hotlips Hammerly," said to be a very attractive blonde, of the same disposition, from El Paso, Texas. A third name found in some Internet resources is Capt. Jane Thurness. All of them were career Army nurses who eventually rose to high rank.


  • Although she is seen reading the Bible in many instances throughout the show, often in the company of Major Frank Burns, it is unknown what Christian denomination Houlihan belongs to. Being raised in the Army, it is likely she may have learned about Christianity from Catholic army chaplains.
  • As in the film, Henry incorrectly calls Margaret "O'Houlihan" and tells her to keep her temper in check, the implication being that Margaret is ethnic Irish (in real life, Loretta Swit is ethnic Polish)
  • Had Margaret actually existed she would have been in her early 30's at the time of the Korean War. Coincidentally, when they each began their portrayal of Margaret, Loretta Swit (TV) and Sally Kellerman (film) were both in their 30s.
  • Though Margaret remained a regular throughout the entire eleven-season run of the series, she is absent from 17 episodes:
  1. The Moose (Season 1, Episode 5)
  2. Cowboy (Season 1, Episode 8)
  3. Henry Please Come Home (Season 1, Episode 9)
  4. The Incubator (Season 2, Episode 12)
  5. Deal Me Out (Season 2, Episode 13)
  6. The Chosen People (Season 2, Episode 19)
  7. Adam's Ribs (Season 3, Episode 11)
  8. A Full Rich Day (Season 3, Episode 12)
  9. Private Charles Lamb (Season 3, Episode 14)
  10. Love and Marriage (Season 3, Episode 20)
  11. The Late Captain Pierce (Season 4, Episode 5)
  12. The Bus (Season 4, Episode 7)
  13. Hawkeye (Season 4, Episode 19)
  14. Some 38th Parallels (Season 4, Episode 20)
  15. The Novocaine Mutiny Season 4, Episode 21)
  16. The More I See You (Season 4, Episode 23)
  17. The Interview (Season 4, Episode 25)

Despite being an often avowed career military officer, in the series finale, Margaret is forced to make a choice between her nursing and military careers, and chooses to continue on as a nurse.