As the longest-running primetime medical drama on TV, Grey’s Anatomy has certainly had more than its share of ups and downs over the years—with a few loop-de-loops thrown in for good measure. But Shondaland’s first big hit, which is currently in its 17th season, still has a few secrets up its scrub sleeves. Here are 25 of them.
1. Series creator Shonda Rhimes got the idea for Grey’s Anatomy after a doctor told her how hard it is to shave her legs in the hospital shower.
Rhimes told Oprah that although she had always loved shows about surgery and emergency rooms, the unique angle for her show was sparked after a doctor mentioned how hard it was to shave her legs in the tiny hospital shower. “At first that seemed like a silly detail,” Rhimes said. “But then I thought about the fact that it was the only time and place this woman might have to shave her legs. That's how hard the work is.”
2. The show is named after a famous medical textbook.
Grey’s Anatomy refers to the series' main character, Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), of course. But the character and show name were chosen as a nod to the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy, penned by English anatomist Henry Gray and first published in 1858. The book is considered the seminal work on the human body and is in its 41st edition today—with a few updates from the first edition, of course.
3. Grey's Anatomy wasn't the only title considered.
Kate Walsh, who played Addison Montgomery for three seasons in Grey's Anatomy's early years, once revealed that other possible titles for the series included Doctors, Surgeons, and Complications.
4. Shonda Rhimes had very specific ideas of what her characters were like—right down to what would be in their hospital lockers.
Part of the main actors’ character descriptions included the contents of their lockers. Meredith: Stacks of old birthday cards that she never got around to mailing and three alarm clocks to prevent her from oversleeping. George O’Malley: Medical journals and old textbooks. Cristina Yang’s include "a Palm Pilot featured with the latest research articles ... high heels to go out in after work, condoms because you never know."
5. Every episode of Grey's Anatomy is named after a song—except one.
Since the very first episode, “A Hard Days’ Night,” named after the Beatles song, every episode has shared a name with a song title, including everything from Public Enemy's “Fight the Power” to Elmo & Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer." The one exception, so far, was a season 14 episode titled “1-800-799-7233”—the real-life hotline to report domestic violence, which was the premise of the episode.
6. Some of Grey's Anatomy's locations are real.
Although all of the interior hospital scenes are filmed on a set, exterior shots are done at a VA hospital in North Hills, California. Meredith’s house, or at least its exterior, is a real home that can be found in the Queen Anne district of Seattle. The scenes at Joe’s Bar used to be filmed at a real watering hole called McMurphy’s in Pasadena until it was recreated onset for easier access. McMurphy’s has since changed hands; it's now known as Der Wolf.
7. Grey's Anatomy's writers consult real medical professionals.
To make sure they get it right, Grey’s writers consult with a team of medical professionals on the proper jargon and phrasing. In her book Year of Yes, however, Rhimes said during the writing process they just use the word medical to fill in for the jargon, which can sometimes result in nonsensical-sounding scripts. Rhimes wrote, “Meredith will say, 'I need a medical medical to medical!' And someone else will go, 'Well I have medical medical.' 'Well hand me the medical!" Rhimes did the same thing on Scandal, where the placeholder word was political.
8. There was one real doctor on staff during Grey's Anatomy's first season.
The writers would come up with outrageous scenarios, often based on ripped-from-the-headlines stories, and then use emergency room doctor Zoanne Clack (who logged some hours as a medical supervisor on ER) as their realist and fact-checker. "What was interesting was that the writers don’t have those boundaries because they don’t know the rules, so they would come up with all of these scenarios, and my immediate thought was like, ‘No way!’” Clack said in an interview with Variety. "Then I’d have to think about it and go, ‘But could it?’” Clack is now a producer, writer, editor, and actor on Grey’s Anatomy.
9. Patrick Dempsey's “McDreamy” nickname was inspired by Dempsey himself.
“When we were shooting the pilot, Patrick [Dempsey] was seriously the most adorable man we'd ever seen on camera,” Rhimes told Oprah. “We'd watch the monitor and think, ‘Look at his dreamy eyes!’ So we started calling him Patrick McDreamy, and it stuck.”
10. Grey's Anatomy's famous slang for female genitalia was inspired by an off-camera exchange.
“I heard one of our assistants using va-jay-jay in place of vagina. It was the greatest phrase I'd ever heard,” Rhimes told Oprah. The phrase was first used by Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) as she was giving birth. “Stop looking at my va-jay-jay,” she told intern George O’Malley (T.R. Knight).
11. Grey's Anatomy's writers were once chastised for using the word vagina too many times.
Rhimes and the writers received a note that they had used the word vagina too many times in one episode. “Now, we’d once used the word penis 17 times in a single episode and no one blinked. But with vagina, the good folks at broadcast standards and practices blinked over and over and over,” Rhimes told The New York Times. "I think no one is comfortable experiencing the female anatomy out loud—which is a shame considering our anatomy is half the population."
12. Rob Lowe could have played Grey's Anatomy's McDreamy.
Lowe was offered the part before Patrick Dempsey was, but turned it down to make the short-lived drama Dr. Vegas instead. But Lowe has no regrets. “Me in that part isn’t as interesting as Patrick in that part,” Lowe told Variety. "If it’d been me [the fans] wouldn’t have called me ‘McDreamy,’ they would have called me Rob Lowe.” Furthermore, it likely would have prevented Lowe from taking a role in another iconic series.
“Had I done Grey’s, I wouldn’t have been in Parks and Recreation," Lowe said. "That alone for me is enough." Another actor who read for McDreamy? Isaiah Washington, who went on to play Dr. Preston Burke.
13. The show was not expected to last beyond the first season.
After the first season wrapped, Grey's Anatomy writers were asked to clean out their offices, because showrunners didn’t expect to get picked up for a second season.
14. The blood and guts on Grey's Anatomy are real.
But it’s not human blood and guts; it’s cow organs. They also use cow blood, red Jell-O, and chicken fat to make all of those surgical scenes look extra realistic. The smell, according to some of the actors, is quite repulsive.
15. The scrub nurse on Grey's Anatomy is also real.
16. After dealing with several scandals with actors on Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes developed a new policy.
Rhomes calls it her “no a**holes policy,” which she began implementing on her next show, Scandal, which debuted in 2012. "There are no Heigls in this situation," Rhimes said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, referring to an infamous incident with actress Katherine Heigl, who declined an Emmy nomination by saying the quality of scripts she received was not award material. "I don't put up with bullsh*t or nasty people. I don't have time for it."
17. Bit characters Joe the Bartender and Nurse Debbie had their own novel.
In 2006, producers released Grey's Anatomy: Notes from the Nurse's Station (Overheard at the Emerald City Bar), a book that revealed instant messages from Nurse Debbie, who similarly heard a lot of scuttlebutt at the nurse’s station. Readers could flip the book over to discover tidbits from the conversations that Joe the Bartender overheard his overworked patrons having.
18. Debbie Allen pushed for greater diversity behind the scenes on Grey's Anatomy.
When Allen joined as director and executive producer just before the 12th season (she had directed individual episodes and acted in the show prior to that), one of her goals was to hire 50 percent female directors and increase the number of Black male directors. One of the directors she tapped was Denzel Washington, who directed the episode “The Sound of Silence.” Though the choice may seem like an unconventional one for Washington, he didn’t hesitate to agree, saying, “I’m going to say yes to Debbie Allen.”
19. Only three of Grey's Anatomy's original actors remain.
After the season 16 departure of Justin Chambers, who played Dr. Alex Karev, only three of the original actors are still on the show: Chandra Wilson, who plays Dr. Miranda Bailey; James Pickens, who plays Dr. Richard Webber; and, of course, Ellen Pompeo, a.k.a. Meredith Grey herself.
20. Shonda Rhimes has said that when Ellen Pompeo is done, Grey's Anatomy is done.
In 2017, Rhimes told E! News, “Ellen and I have a pact that I'm going to do the show as long as she's going to do the show. So, the show will exist as long as both of us want to do it. If she wants to stop, we're stopping."
21. Grey’s Anatomy helped change public perceptions about HIV-positive pregnancies.
In 2008, the Kaiser Family Foundation worked with Grey’s writers to create a storyline that would potentially impact the way the public perceived pregnancies in HIV-positive women. The show communicated the fact that women who are HIV-positive have a 98 percent chance of having a healthy baby if they receive proper medical care throughout their pregnancy, something that most people were not aware of. According to studies conducted before and after the show aired, viewers’ knowledge about mother-to-child HIV transmission rates rose substantially post-episode, and the new information was still retained even six weeks later.
22. Grey's Anatomy has saved lives in other ways, too.
In 2011, when a Wisconsin woman collapsed during a severe asthma attack, her 10-year-old daughter and a friend administered CPR after seeing it on the show. The woman made a full recovery.
23. The names on the surgical board on Grey's Anatomy aren’t random.
We see Seattle Grace’s surgical board containing a master list of the day’s ORs, patients, surgeons, and anesthesiologists almost every episode. While the surgeon names are often familiar, the patient names are peppered with the names of crew members who actually work on the show.
24. Grey's Anatomy's musical episode was inspired by actress Sara Ramirez.
Immediately before joining the Grey’s clan as Dr. Callie Torres, Ramirez took home a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Her appearance as Lady of the Lake in Spamalot earned her a lot of musical accolades, which inspired Rhimes to use her chops in a musical episode she had long been thinking about. The episode "Song Beneath the Song" is generally not considered one of Grey’s best, but Ramirez got rave reviews.
25. Ellen Pompeo has one wish when it comes time to shoot the Grey's Anatomy series finale.
Her request? That the original cast members come back. It could prove to be a challenge, as many of them have since met their demise in the show. But in a series that has employed methods from ghosts to dreams to hallucinations, there’s no telling what the showrunners have up their sleeves.