It is agreed by historians that the Civil War changed America forever. Yet, the understanding of medicine of the era is still mostly misunderstood. The myths set forth in over a century and a half of popular history have continued to be the main source for understanding Civil War Medicine. The suffering of the era has nearly been complete in obscuring the radical effect of Civil War era innovation on the current century.
Now a PBS production has delved into this confused world. Fortunately, they have been willing to go into this project with a willingness to set historical accuracy as a high priority. Many of the characters are real and are based on either their own accounts, or the accounts of those they worked with. Others are collections of actual people whose stories might otherwise be lost. They have even set up a nice website to allow all of us to explore the stories behind the people and places. But they went further than that.
They also employed the help of scholars like Dr. Shauna Divine whose outstanding, award winning book Learning From the Wounded has helped to reshape the understanding of Civil War medicine as a scientific watershed. They also consulted with Dr. Alfred J. Bollet, author of the famed Civil War Medicine, Challenges and Triumphs. And they utilized the staff and volunteers the National Museum of Civil War Medicine whose has also set up a website specifically for the show. I too, got to have input with many others. But the question may still be asked:so what?
This show is not simply important because it will replace Downton Abbey. It is not simply important because PBS has chosen it to bring American made shows back to the forefront of its offerings. It is important because the issues brought up in this drama play out in our lives every day, and most of America does not even know it.
In the first episode we see nurse Mary Phinney as she struggles with her personal politics and her duties to care for "enemy" soldiers. This struggle was real for many on both sides of the war. International humanitarian law would be forever changed as a result of the Civil War. Our solutions and experiences in the United States would help inform future treaties, non-governmental relief organization practices and care givers to this very day. People like Clara Barton would go on to change how relief was delivered and organized. Today every time we see relief in a disaster zone or battlefield, her legacy is there.
Major Jonathon Letterman helped to organize the first truly systematic emergency response
organization in our history and his basic plan has become the world standard. He linked evacuation, first aid, medical logistics and medical command and control and medical intelligence into a structure that cared for the wounded and sick from their first moment of need and moved them from places of danger to safety in a well supplied, highly professional medical department. His plan can even be seen on our civilian EMS services today in every community in our country.
We even see the role of chaplains and faith in healing process. Empirical studies in the past few years have shown growing understanding that chaplains do indeed assist in healing process. In an age of ever growing health care debates, more and more healthcare providers are looking at the role of the chaplaincy in making care delivery more effective for the patient. This is not new, but also little thought in the public forum.
There are many more current issues that were present during the war and as the show continues, I hope to blog about these issues. The point is, this new program is not just about entertainment, it is a refection on our past that can help us illuminate our present and future. Just one more reason to give Mercy Street a chance.