"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 MargaretEdit

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 season 9 in the 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 Edit


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" Edit

In the film, Margaret unwittingly gives herself the infamous nickname of "Hot Lips" when she and Frank have a wild tête-à-tête 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 comes to a fast 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 prank, Trapper and the others are not through with her yet. 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 except Margaret, they are detained by the men for varying reasons. Once Margaret is inside, 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 hysterics, Margaret storms to Henry's tent screaming at him to do something about the others, threatening to resign her commission if he doesn't. When he 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 of the unit's football team when they play 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 Edit

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 strongly military, openly stern and no-nonsense, but behind the scenes she is willing to buck regulations for her own gain. She uses 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 lack of leadership. Her dissatisfaction with Henry's command 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 that Henry actually donated medical supplies to an orphanage run by an American in North Korea.

Relationships and marriage Edit

Despite her admonitions to the others for their immoral behavior, Margaret is in an ongoing affair with the married Frank during the first few seasons of the series. Frank often makes mention of his wife, which doesn't sit well with Margaret, who frequently hints none too subtly that Frank should leave his wife for her. The two maintain their clandestine liaison through season 4. 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.

Her relationship with Frank begins to disintegrate when it finally dawns on her that Frank has no intention of leaving his wife for her. With this in mind, early in season 5, she returns from R&R in Tokyo and 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. Hawkeye later puts Margaret 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 by the end of season 5 and go to Tokyo for their honeymoon, but Margaret returns to camp early and is very sullen; it turns out that her marriage is not much of a marriage at all considering the distance between the two, added to which 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). She later receives a steamy letter from Donald, but it turns out to be a letter he had written to another woman but had mistakenly sent to Margaret. Later still, Margaret finds out that a new nurse in camp had had an affair with Donald right before she arrived (In Love and War). By the time Season 7 begins, though Donald promises to work things out with her, he has himself permanently transferred back to San Francisco, effectively ending all hope of reconciliation. Blaming herself for "the place I picked to have a marriage", she tearfully tells Hawkeye that she is going to get a divorce (Peace On Us).

Aside from her 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.

Personal life Edit

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. She suffers from extreme loneliness stemming from her unluckiness in love, and she longs deeply for 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 winds up 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 Margaret's romantic relationships turn out to be temporary. Hawkeye once noted to his father that she has "considerable passion", which she has to keep in check as the men she finds herself with are only interested in indulging themselves in her abundant physical charms. When she confides in Hawkeye that she is looking for love but still hasn't found it, Hawkeye compasisonately tells her that she will know when it happens (Stars and Stripes).

After her marriage ends, Margaret finds herself in occasional romances, which include:

  • Major Winchester, Frank's replacement at the 4077th. Initially, the two try 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.
  • Dr. Myron "Bud" Herzog, a traveling optometrist. Margaret's "romance" with Herzog is actually a pretense for her actual situation: she wants to get her eyes examined to see if she needs glasses, which he finds out she doesn't... 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. She 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 he finally opens up to her about a recent injury that left him impotent. She apologizes for putting him on the spot, and the two spend the night talking.

Relationship with othersEdit

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.

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

  • Wally Crichton, whom she dated while in nursing school.
  • 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, Trapper calls Margaret a "pain in the ass" but then says she is "a damned good nurse". And like Frank and the others, she wept when she heard the shocking news that Henry had been killed before he could make it home.

Later seasons Edit

By contrast, she gets along very well with Henry's 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 her divorce, Margaret begins to rely less on her sex appeal, and more on her own work experience as a nurse and an officer for advancement. Re-dedicating herself to her Army career, she comes up with a bold new idea to run the camp more efficiently by training the nurses on how to do triage to free up more of the doctors' time for surgery. Her plan proves to be excellent, and she invites an old friend, General Weiskopf to observe her nurses in action. He is impressed and is ready to promote her to Lieutenant Colonel, but when he hints that he wants her as his own private mistress, she refuses and sends him away. (Hot Lips is Back in Town)

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. However, it should be pointed out that in the earlier seasons, even at her worst, Margaret 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 Edit

Main article: Prototypes for Margaret Houlihan

Several real-life Korean War MASH nurses are said to be the prototypes for the character of "Hotlips 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.


Though Margaret remained a regular throughout the entire eleven-season run of the series, she is absent from sixteen episodes:

  1. The Moose
  2. Cowboy
  3. Henry Please Come Home
  4. The Incubator
  5. Deal Me Out
  6. The Chosen People
  7. Adam's Ribs
  8. A Full Rich Day
  9. Private Charles Lamb
  10. Love and Marriage
  11. The Late Captain Pierce
  12. The Bus
  13. Hawkeye
  14. Some 38th Parallels
  15. The Novocaine Mutiny
  16. The Interview


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