IUPUI's Jane Schultz helps bring historical accuracy to 'Mercy Street,' PBS' new Civil War drama: Newscenter: Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

IUPUI's Jane Schultz helps bring historical accuracy to 'Mercy Street,' PBS' new Civil War drama

  • Jan. 28, 2016


INDIANAPOLIS -- When Jane Schultz, professor of English and medical humanities and director of literature at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, was asked to be a historical consultant for "Mercy Street," a PBS Civil War medical drama series, she said she would think about it.

"I did so, for about three seconds," said Schultz, who teaches in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. "It seemed a wonderful way to bring the history of Civil War hospitals and medicine to a wider public."

That was the same goal set by "Mercy Street" producer Lisa Wolfinger, who told the L.A. Daily News, "We just thought, 'Let's do something set in the Civil War from the vantage point of these doctors and volunteer nurses.' Because it’s never been done. It's never been told."

The first episode of "Mercy Street," the first PBS original drama in more than 10 years, aired Jan. 17, drawing 3.3 million viewers. The series takes place in a luxury hotel that’s been turned into a Union hospital in Alexandria, Va.

Schultz has spent nearly 30 years revealing the world of Civil War hospitals and medicine.

Among her accomplishments:

  • Co-editor of "Nursing History and Humanities," a book series published at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
  • Author of "Women at the Front," a study of gender and relief work in American Civil War military hospitals that was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize in 2005.
  • Author of "This Birth Place of Souls," an annotated edition of one of the last existing nursing diaries from the Civil War, published in 2010.

Currently she is engaged in two book projects: one on surgical culture in the Civil War ("Lead, Blood, and Ink") and another titled "A Match Made in Hospital," concerning the correspondence of a female hospital worker from Pennsylvania who fell in love with a surgeon in the Army of the Potomac.

It was this body of work that led Wolfinger to contact Schultz in February 2014 to ask that she be a "Mercy Street" consultant.

Scripts for each episode are sent to Schultz for review. She reads them carefully, offering comments about historical accuracy of medical interactions, even to the point of flagging language that 19th-century nurses and doctors would not have used.

When "Mercy Street" began filming in Richmond, Va. last spring, Schultz said, she got a rash of questions: Did hospitals have lobbies like the hotel in which the show is set? Who would have been there? Would doors have been guarded? Would the characters have gone outside to use latrines or used water closets?

As the show's writers began working last fall on scripts for a potential second season, Schultz was invited to L.A., but the fall semester was underway at IUPUI, so she had to decline.

Overall, Schultz said she was pleased with the historical accuracy of "Mercy Street." Not everything is right, she said, noting, "they want to make it a drama that people will watch."

One bow to the need for drama is showing nurses engaged in surgery, when that generally was not the case. It would have depended on where women were working and how desperate the situation was, Schultz said. Surgeons, she noted, would have used orderlies or male nurses to help with that grisly work.

Still, nurses in the North and the South dealt daily with horrors of war. In Mercy Street Revealed: A Blog, to which Schultz and other "Mercy Street" historical consultants contribute in partnership with PBS, she wrote, "Nurses on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line refer to the shock of entering military hospital space for the first time: Some encountered tubs of amputated body parts; others were nauseated by the smells of bodily effluvia."

"Mercy Street" is based on events that hospital workers recorded in their diaries and letters, illuminating the complex negotiations of diverse constituencies that gathered to promote sick and wounded soldiers' survival.

It's those historical records and diaries that Schultz first encountered at the National Archives in the 1990s that launched her on what she described as her serious work of describing the experiences of these nurses.

More than 21,000 women in the Union alone provided hospital services, seven times as many as was estimated at an earlier time, Schultz said. And many wrote their experiences down because people in the 1860s realized they were passing through something transformational.

Few have known about this aspect of the Civil War, Schultz said: "At long last, the public can be witness to the fascinating and sometimes dramatic stories that circulated through the health and hospital quarters of the Civil War."

Jane Schultz

Jane Schultz | Photo by https://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/blogs/mercy-street-revealed/

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Mercy Street

Mercy Street | Photo by https://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/blogs/mercy-street-revealed/

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Richard Schneider