Margaret "Hotlips" Houlihan
Loretta Swit as Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan
M*A*S*H character
Vital information
Rank: Major (O-4), U.S. Army
Job/Role in Unit: Head Nurse at the 4077th M*A*S*H
Home: Fort Ord, California
Hair Color: Blonde
Eye Color: Blue
Height: 5'7"
Weight: 125 lbs.
Family/Personal Information
Born: 1920
Birthplace: Fort Ord, California
Nationality/Race: American/Caucasian
Spouse(s): Lt. Colonel Donald Penobscott (divorced)
Relatives/Children: Colonel Alvin "Howitzer Al" Houlihan (father)
Mrs. Alvin Houlihan (mother)
an unnamed younger sister who was a captain
First appeared in: "Pilot" (Season 1)
Last appeared in: "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" (Season 11)
Appeared on/or in: MASH film / M*A*S*H TV series
Played by: Sally Kellerman in MASH film
Loretta Swit in M*A*S*H TV series

Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan was a fictional character first created in the book M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker. Actress Sally Kellerman portrayed her in the Robert Altman film adaptation (where the character was sometimes referred to as "O'Houlihan"); however, like many of the M*A*S*H* characters, Hot Lips is probably best known from the television series, where her part was played by actress Loretta Swit. Having the advantage of an 11-year run on television, Swit's Houlihan became a significantly more developed character than originally portrayed in the film by actress Sally Kellerman, in many ways demonstrating characteristics that would have been almost antithetical to the cinematic Hot Lips.

Real-life InspirationEdit

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.


Major Houlihan is a member of the Army Nurse Corps and in charge of all the nurses at the MASH 4077 unit. She is devoted to her army career, having been born into the tradition. Her father, Colonel Alvin "Howitzer Al" Houlihan, was her role model for her career (An inconsistent later episode shows that he was in the cavalry instead of the artillery and that he is alive-although in earlier episodes, she refers to him as dead). In Season 2, she tells Henry Blake that he looks just like her father before he died, and in Season 3 when asking Frank Burns for money, she refers to her father being dead and her mother being a drunk and kleptomaniac. As an army brat, she was born in an army hospital and grew up on army posts, most notably Fort Ord.

Personal lifeEdit

On their wedding night, her parents gave each other gifts - her father received a .25 pistol about as big as a cigarette lighter and her mother received a whiskey flask. Her parents are divorced. We don't know much about Margaret's mother; the statement she made to Frank about her being an alcoholic kleptomaniac were most likely made up to keep him from asking her why she needs to borrow money from him. In that same episode, Margaret tells Frank she has a younger sister, who is only a Captain, is getting married (which is why she needs the money: for a gift). In another episode, it's her birthday and she is lost in Korea with Klinger. She confesses that she envies him for having something she never had: a hometown. One episode (The Gun) has a goof, in which Houlihan remarks that a pistol Burns had stolen from a patient is an 1873 Colt's Single Action Army revolver, sometimes referenced as the "Peacemaker"; in fact, it is a model 1898 US Army revolver. Although she acts tough, she can be an emotionally vulnerable person. She devotes most of her energies to caring for her nursing staff and her Army career, although not only does she have to put up with Major Burns - who dashes her hopes of leaving his wife to marry her - an unfaithful husband (Penobscott), and a Sgt front line lover (Scully) who also does not give her the emotional caring she secretly craves; she has to equally put up with civilians in uniform who deeply offend her upbringing of military duty - such as a drunken commanding officer who exercises no discipline at all (Henry Blake) and Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John, and later B.J. Hunnicutt, to whom the Army is one big joke.

Relationship with othersEdit

Hot Lips spent the early part of the series battling Hawkeye and Trapper along with Frank and, additionally, criticizing Lt. Col. Henry Blake for his lack of authority and, when not going over his head, filing formal complaints. Many early jokes were at her expense, such as when a gassed boxer fell on her and Frank. While she didn't seem to hate Henry as an individual, she once described him as a "golf playing figurehead" and later as a "fly fishing impostor". She also referred to him as "Col. Bubble-Head." Henry generally let her criticisms roll off his back, but at one point he mocked Hot Lips by saying that she'd gone over his head so many times she'd given him "athlete's scalp," and another time he refers to her as Herman Goering in drag. Still, she and Frank both wept for Henry when they heard of his death.

By contrast, she got along very well with Colonel Sherman T. Potter, the camp's 2nd CO, who was something of a father figure to her. A running gag is that Houlihan relationships with men (Frank Burns, Donald Penobscott, and Jack Scully) are all disasters - when she confess to Hawkeye that she is looking for love and never finding it, Hawkeye tells her in a compassionate way that she will know when this happens, in contrast with early episodes, which hint that Houlihan had relationships with every General in both stateside and in the Asia-Pacific theater - with the exception of Douglas MacArthur. There's another running gag where the male main characters give her a big dip/kiss when saying "good bye" to her: Hawkeye does it several times, and Henry does it in his last episode; "Hot Lips" also kisses Col. Potter in an episode while he's drunk (just a peck on the cheek, though).  She likes dogs and has a knack for learning the Korean language. In the running gag of Houlihan never finding love twice there are hints that she came close twice: In Hot Lips and Empty Arms, Houlihan confesses that she let a rival marry a rich doctor and who ended up with a fine house, a swimming pool, and two children - all of which Houlihan bitterly regrets could have been hers. In episode Run for the Money (11/9) she is jealous of the head nurse of the 8063rd MASH Judy "Parallel" Parker who stole a Chief Petty officer stationed on the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) from her. This, however, is a goof; the Coral Sea never served in the Korean theater.


Over the run of the show, Margaret mellowed from a completely "by-the-book" head nurse (who was also not above using her romantic contacts with superior officers to get her way), to a more reasonable member of the cast who tempered her authority with humanity. Key episodes in this development were The Nurses which had Margaret making an emotional tirade to her nurses about how their disdain of her hurt her, which thoroughly stuns them, and Comrades In Arms where Hawkeye and Margaret make peace once and for all while lost in the wilderness. When the show ended, Margaret was on her way back to the US to take up a position in an army hospital. Not coincidentally, the changes came when Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place joined the show's writing team.

Some fans regretted the change of heart in Hot Lips' character. While some loved how she became a kinder, more gentle person, others felt that she worked better as strict, no-nonsense antagonist with a slight problem regarding her passion. Even at her most antagonistic, she was generally allowed more humanity than her fellow antagonist, Frank Burns. One goof is that several episodes show Houlihan wearing long hair - she would have had to have it cut short in a real military situation; likewise, other episodes show her out of uniform, wearing a black sweater. Had Houlihan really been in the Korean War, she would have been 32: b.1920, gone to nursing college 1938, graduate 1942 and joins service. Coincidentally this is close to the real age of Sally Kellerman and Loretta Swit.


The name "Hot Lips" originates from an infamous scene in M*A*S*H, the movie, in which Margaret Houlihan is played by Sally Kellerman. During sex with Frank Burns, Margaret is unaware that the public address microphone has been planted beneath their cot, broadcasting graphic details of their sexual encounter throughout the camp on its public address system. "Yes Frank! Oh yes, kiss my hot lips." (presumably her labia). This nickname was used - without the sexual meaning - more in the earlier seasons of the TV series but was used less and less as time went on.


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

  • 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.


During the TV series, Margaret is absent from the episodes: The Moose, Cowboy, Henry Please Come Home, The Incubator, Deal Me Out, The Chosen People, Adam's Ribs, A Full Rich Day, Private Charles Lamb, Love and Marriage, The Late Captain Pierce, The Bus, Hawkeye, Some 38th Parallels, The Novocaine Mutiny, and The Interview.

The swan song episode for Major Houlihan was Margaret's Marriage when Houlihan is shown going off on her honeymoon - presumably the lonely Major would have found love at last, and this would have been the last seen of her character; as it was indeed the last seen of Major Frank Burns; however, she was brought back again for the remaining 7 seasons of the show. It was never addressed if the lonely alcoholic prone Major ever found love after Korea.

One continuity error is that Houlihan had a younger sister who was married, but was only a captain; another is referring to her father as being a artilleryman and later changing it to cavalryman. One part of M*A*S*H fantasy is Houlihan claiming she drinks a quart of brandy a day, yet is still sober enough to work. At such a rate, she would have been too drunk to function as head nurse and would have been dismissed from both her nursing and Army careers.

One possible goof in the series is that Houlihan's rank is shown as a Major; according to the 1959 US Army Almanac (p. 149), after 10 years in the service, the rank for an officer should be a Captain; a Major after 14 years service. However, a war veteran of demonstrated superior performance could very well have earned an accelerated promotion. It is also possible, given the anarchic nature of the M*A*S*H TV series timeline and continuity, that Houlihan was actually 14 or more years into her career when the Korean War began. Lastly, Houlihan may simply have been promoted to Major as part of the Korean Emergency: during the first few months of the Korean Conflict, as the military was undergoing deep defense cuts by the Truman Administration, the US was thrown into a major war with only weeks to build a major force in the field. Houlihan, as a professional soldier with an excellent record, would have been a logical choice for such a promotion during that time.