‘Call the Midwife’ Recap: Season 5 Episode 3

Call the Midwife is back for a fifth season and so are the faculty of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing with a weekly guest blog. Watch the show 7 p.m. Sundays through May 22, then read the blog each Monday morning for historical and contemporary context about the previous night’s episode. SPOILER ALERT: Some posts may contain spoilers.


Dorothy Whitmore(Hannah Morrish), Sister Winifred (Victoria Yeates). Credit: Courtesy of Red Productions Ltd 2015

Dorothy Whitmore(Hannah Morrish), Sister Winifred (Victoria Yeates). Credit: Courtesy of Red Productions Ltd 2015


By Michelle Collins
Vanderbilt University School of Nursing

Collins smSome weekly blog entries are definitely easier to pen than others ‒ this was not one of those. There was a sense of déjà vu watching this episode, as one of the main storylines dealt with elective termination of pregnancy in a time period where the options available for that often caused significant harm, or even death, to the woman.

The déjà vu related to Season 3, Episode 3 wherein a mother of eight (at what we today lovingly call “advanced maternal age”) finds herself pregnant again. Living in poverty, in a two-room, rat-infested public housing flat, this woman struggles with the palpable, agonizing realization of what yet another mouth to feed will mean for her family. From a place of sheer desperation, she attempts to abort the pregnancy using the various means available in a 1950s non-legalized abortion environment: herbal preparations given her by the local lay abortion provider; ingestion of Epsom salts and/or turpentine; or even attempting to manually abort the pregnancy using knitting needles.

In this recent episode of Call the Midwife, we find a young, single teacher facing an unplanned pregnancy, the result of an affair with a married man. She eventually loses her job, her partner and even her home as her landlady throws her out declaring, “I run a respectable establishment.” I looked back to my earlier post on this topic and, well, I feel like what I said then still applies here. In that spirit, here goes…

The issue of elective termination has been debated since the dawn of time. Ancient Chinese women used mercury as an abortifacient, while Greek women partook of the herb pennyroyal to induce abortion. Midwives have long stood on both sides of the issue, as well. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, we read about two midwives who had some real moxie for women of their time (considering that disagreeing with the reigning ruler usually bought you a one-way ticket to the executioner). When the reigning pharaoh began to get a bit nervous that the growing Hebrew population was producing too many future warriors who could potentially rise up against him, he called two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, to court and commanded to kill male babies immediately when they attended births.

Well, that didn’t sit so well with this God-fearing dynamic midwife duo who blatantly disobeyed the pharaoh. When they were hauled back into his court and questioned about their disobedience, they told a slight white lie and reported that the Hebrew women were unlike the “delicate” Egyptian women; the Hebrew women were hearty and had always given birth by the time the midwives had arrived. Therefore, there was no way to kill the baby at that point and make it look like a stillbirth. Call it naiveté, or the hand of providence, but the pharaoh let them go their own way, and as Paul Harvey used to say, now you know the rest of the story. Exodus records that it is because of their actions that the midwives found favor with God.

As was seen in both of these episodes, nurses, physicians and midwives are often caught in ethical situations in which personal morals and convictions are put to the test. It’s fairly easy, sometimes, to “armchair quarterback” someone else’s life and declare what is right and wrong. When placed smack in the middle of that person’s situation however ‒ amidst the pain, the angst and utter despair – black and white can look a bit grayer.

Michelle Collins Ph.D., CNM, FACNM is a professor of nursing and director of the Nurse-Midwifery Program, at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.


‘Call the Midwife’ Recap: Season 5 Episode 2

Call the Midwife is back for a fifth season and so are the faculty of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing with a weekly guest blog. Watch the show 7 p.m. Sundays through May 22, then read the blog each Monday morning for historical and contemporary context about the previous night’s episode. SPOILER ALERT: Some posts may contain spoilers.


Nurse Barbara (Charlotte Ritchie), Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), Nurse Phyllis (Linda Bassett). Credit: Courtesy of Sophie Mutevelian


By Bethany Domzal Sanders
Vanderbilt University School of Nursing

Bethany SandersPerhaps one of the most gut-wrenching phrases to say to any mother is: You want what’s best for baby, right? It’s a rhetorical question, and a loaded one at that. Underlying the question is some kind of judgment or opinion about the mother’s parenting and an implication that she is doing it wrong. Those words can be especially powerful in the first few days after birth when parents are often exhausted and extra protective of their new baby.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “breast is best” and while there is a lot of truth to that, it can also open up a can of worms. Controversy over breast-feeding is nothing new. As early as 1865, formula was being marketed as “the perfect infant food.”* The 1940s and 1950s saw increasing acceptance of infant formula as manufacturers, while prohibited from advertising directly to consumers, had close relationships with physicians. Breast-feeding rates subsequently declined. While rates of breast-feeding have increased since that time, there is no lack of opinions about breast- versus bottle-feeding and a Fall 2015 New York Times op-ed entitled “Overselling Breast-Feeding” added more fuel to the debate.

In this week’s Call the Midwife episode, Sister Evangelina found herself navigating these dangerous waters while trying to help poor Connie. Her intentions were good, even if overzealous at times. This is a familiar situation for many midwives. How do you normalize breast-feeding, support and encourage women in nursing while also being sensitive to the fact that not all women want to or can successfully breast-feed? How do you switch gears from helping a mother in the early days of nursing to affirming her choice to stop? As midwives, we are called to listen to and advocate for women but it’s particularly hard when a mother’s choice doesn’t line up with our own expectations. We don’t always realize the effect our words have on our clients either, as Sister Evangelina learned.

Ultimately, the No. 1 rule of breast-feeding is FEED THE BABY. While babies are equipped with special fat stores and reserves to tide them over until a mother’s milk comes in, guidelines exist to help identify when there is too much weight loss and supplementation with either donor milk or formula is needed. Improvements in the manufacturing of infant formula have made it much safer and it continues to be an acceptable alternative for many families. Breast-feeding has always been, and always will be, the biological norm. We just need better ways to support all mothers, since after all we are all trying to do what’s best.

Bethany Domzal Sanders, MSN, CNM, is a member of the Vanderbilt Nurse-Midwives, the clinical practice of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing located at West End Women’s Health Center.

*Source: A History of Infant Feeding by Emily Stevens, Thelma Patrick and Rita Pickler. The Journal of Perinatal Education. Spring 2008, Volume 18, Number 2.

‘Call the Midwife’ Recap: Season 5 Episode 1

Good news, Midwife fans! Call the Midwife is back for a fifth season and so are the faculty of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing with a weekly guest blog. Watch the show Sundays at 7 p.m., March 27 through May 22, then read our blog each Monday morning for historical and contemporary context about the previous night’s episode. SPOILER ALERT: Some posts may contain spoilers.


CTM 5-1

Barbara (Charlotte Ritchie), Patsy (Emerald Fennell), Trixie (Helen George). Credit: Courtesy of Red Productions Ltd 2015


By Michelle Collins
Vanderbilt University School of Nursing

Collins smAnd here we go again! The long-awaited fifth season of Call the Midwife is off to a great start with the midwives of Nonnatus House looking especially spiffy in their newly updated uniforms. A bit of trivia about those elaborate silver buckles at their waists: parallel to the American tradition of awarding nursing graduates a pin, British midwives were awarded an ornate sterling silver belt buckle upon graduation and it was the only non-standardized thing they could wear on their uniform. Some midwifery schools and hospitals had their own buckle design, which was also an option for midwives on their staffs.

In this first episode, we saw Trixie (Helen George) passionately defending her attendance at exercise class after Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) suggested that time was detrimental to the order and flow of the Nonnatus House. Trixie explained that interacting with the women of the community gave her the opportunity to teach them about their bodies. Her assistance is evident in the scenario of the elderly woman who is found to have a prolapsed uterus (i.e. uterus that comes down and out of the vagina) but who never sought medical care for it because she assumed it was “just something to be tolerated”; it was just part of being a woman and bearing children. As Trixie explains, “owning a woman’s body ought to be a joy,” and she was going to teach that to the women she encountered whether in her role as a midwife or as an exercise instructor.

This week’s episode also centered on the birth of a baby with phocomelia, a disorder wherein the baby is born with flipper or stub-like projections in the place of arms and legs. Phocomelia is very rare and can be inherited from the baby’s parents, though historically the most common cause has been maternal ingestion of the drug thalidomide. After it became available in the mid-1950s, women were advised to take thalidomide to ease nausea in pregnancy. About half of all babies born with phocomelia did not survive; those that did had major disabilities.

Thousands of babies in Europe and the U.S. were born with thalidomide syndrome before the connection was made and the drug was removed from the market. The one positive outcome from the crisis was that drug testing became more rigorous in many countries (thankfully). Prior to the thalidomide tragedy, the introduction of any new drug was considered as “good” and rigorous pharmaceutical testing was not the norm; thalidomide had never even been tested in pregnant animals to ascertain whether it had negative effects on fetuses.

In this episode, the agony the baby’s mother felt as she finally looked upon her baby was palpable, and the angst and shame of the father equally so. Grateful for a mother’s love, which most assuredly sees the beauty in every one of her children, the narrator Jenny notes at the end of the episode “there was love because love grows where nothing else is certain, changing its shape to fill the space required.” An affirmative “amen” to that, as those of us who are mothers can attest!


Michelle Collins Ph.D., CNM, FACNM, is a professor of nursing and director of the Nurse-Midwifery Program at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

New Seasons of Grantchester, Mr. Selfridge and Call the Midwife for Spring

Many of you have told us you feel a certain void in your Sunday nights now that Downton Abbey on Masterpiece has concluded. Don’t despair, with spring comes rebirth, renewal and the return of three of your favorite dramas: Grantchester and Mr. Selfridge (March 27) and Call the Midwife (April 3).

Grantchester is back for a second season on Masterpiece with James Norton as “red-hot ginger” vicar Sidney Chambers and Robson Green as Inspector Geordie Keating. These two came from different spheres (Sidney is a graduate of nearby Cambridge, while working-class Geordie grew up in rougher environs), but bonded over backgammon, ale and their military experiences during the Second World War.

As Season 2 begins, Geordie is determined to help Sidney find romance, but along with the amusing string of first dates, there are also dark themes as the unlikely team tackle a haunted stable, Cold War fears and an apparent suicide while solving this season’s homicides.

Grantchester airs Sundays at 8 p.m., March 27 through May 1.

The fourth season of Mr. Selfridge on Masterpiece is also its final season and should provide as much spectacle and intrigue as we’ve come to expect. In these episodes, American-born Harry Gordon Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) continues to battle his demons, rivals and often his staff while trying to keep his trend-setting department store at the top of its game. If you’ve seen Secrets of Selfridges – which airs on NPT Sunday, March 27, at 7 p.m. – or are otherwise familiar with Selfridge’s life, you know how the real story ended; tune in to see how things work out in this fictionalized version.

Mr. Selfridge airs Sundays at 9 p.m., March 27 through May 22.

Finally, NPT viewer-favorite Call the Midwife returns Sunday, April 3, and once again we’ll have Michelle Collins and Bethany Domzal Sanders of Vanderbilt University School of Nursing writing a weekly guest blog about each episode.

It’s 1961 as the fifth season begins and the community of Poplar now has better housing, sanitation and access to healthcare. There also new challenges and ideas for the nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House: This season’s episodes explore thalidomide, a then-newly available drug prescribed to pregnant women; the advent of baby formula; and developments in women’s healthcare, including the pill.

Call the Midwife airs Sundays at 7 p.m., April 3 through May 22. Look for a new Call the Midwife blog post Mondays, April 4 through May 23.

NPT’s ‘First Black Statesmen’ documentary featured in online screening event

NPT is hosting a unique way to see First Black Statesmen: Tennessee’s Self-Made Men, our latest history documentary. On Friday, March 25, at noon, viewers can watch the documentary via an online platform that allows for real-time conversation with panelists and other viewers in an adjacent window. The First Black Statesmen event will feature NPT’s Ed Jones, the documentary’s writer and producer, along with historian Kathy Lauder. Click this link to RSVP or participate in the screening.

This special online screening event comes after the documentary’s February 2016 broadcast premiere and well-received screening events at Baker Donelson and Nissan North America.


First Black Statesmen is the first of a planned series of NPT original documentaries called the Citizenship Project. First Black Statesmen tells the story of 14 men, 11 of whom who had been born into slavery, who defied the odds and rampant racism of the time, to become elected representatives in the Tennessee State Legislature between 1873 and 1896.

Though one of the men, Samuel McElwee, was nominated for the position of Speaker of the House during his second term – and a historical marker to him stands on Fisk University’s campus – the group had been largely forgotten until the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators requested a traveling exhibit. That’s when archivist Lauder began research that led to the rediscovery of this chapter of Tennessee history; the results of her efforts can be found on the website This Honorable Body.

Lauder has since retired from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, but the project remains an ongoing labor of love. She is one of the featured historians in First Black Statesmen, as are Linda T. Wynn of Tennessee Historical Commission, and retired Tennessee State University dean and history professor Dr. Bobby L. Lovett.

In the documentary, Lauder, Wynn and Lovett provide context for the men’s elections and present a picture of what life in office was like for them. Following Keeble’s term, tough laws were passed that some experts consider to be Tennessee’s first Jim Crow laws, according to Jones; these new restrictions made things even more difficult for Keeble’s successors. “They were already fighting a losing battle when they walked in,” Jones said. While their legislative accomplishments may have been few, these trailblazers fought for laws that would benefit their newly enfranchised supporters and help ease their path to full citizenship.

First Black Statesmen is also available for viewing online at http://video.wnpt.org/show/citizenship/.

Citizenship Project logoAbout the Citizenship Project
The Citizenship Project is a new series of NPT original documentaries that will look at how different groups have fought for, obtained and maintained the rights and access we commonly associate with American citizenship.

These include the right to vote, the right to receive a public education, the right to be considered equal before the law, and the right to worship the religion of one’s choice. Over the course of the project, the programs will cover Tennessee history from the end of the Civil War through the 1960s, exploring civil rights and women’s suffrage among other topics.


Major funding provided by

TnCivilWarNationalHeritage logo

Programming Marks Astronaut’s Return to Earth

On March 27, 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly began an unprecedented year-long mission aboard the International Space Station. In honor of Cdr. Kelly’s return to Earth, we’re airing a series of space programs over the next two days.

Here’s our mission plan:

Tonight at 8 p.m.: Space Men: American Experience reveals the Air Force program known as Project Excelsior that sought to launch pilots into space via high-altitude balloons. This early space-flight program led to important discoveries about human’s ability to withstand gravitational forces and many of the tests developed in Project Excelsior were used in the selection process for NASA’s famous Mercury 7 astronauts.


Wednesday, March 2 at 7 p.m.: Could you stand to spend a year away from Earth? Scott Kelly’s test of space endurance aboard the International Space Station is the subject of A Year in Space, a PBS/TIME film. Cdr. Kelly’s twin brother, Capt. Mark Kelly, has been the control part of NASA’s experiment to learn about the effects of prolonged time in a zero-gravity environment on humans ‒ necessary research for eventual voyages to Mars.

Wednesday, March 2 at 8p.m.: NOVA’s First Man on the Moon is a biography of Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first human to step onto the moon.

Wednesday, March 2 at 9 p.m.: The BBC’s Cosmonauts: How Russia Won the Space Race chronicles the 1950s and ′60s Soviet space program and reveals previously classified details about the USSR’s achievements and failures during the Cold War space race. The footage of Earth from outer space is stunning.

NPT wins three 2016 Midsouth Emmy Awards

NPT emmy group 2016

NPT’s LaTonya Turner, Shawn Anfinson, Will Pedigo, Suzy Hence and Jessica Turk at the 2016 Midsouth Regional Emmy Awards.

Nashville Public Television received three awards at the 30th Annual Midsouth Regional Awards on February 27, 2016, at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

NPT Reports: Aging Matters: Aging in Place won in the Documentary/Topical category, with awards going to producer Will Pedigo and editor Matthew Emigh.

NPT Reports: Aging Matters: Caregiving won in the Public Affairs category, with producer LaTonya Turner and editor Suzy Hence receiving statuettes.

Tennessee Crossroads: Eyes on LaFollette won in the Magazine Segment category, with producer Will Pedigo and editor Matthew Emigh receiving awards.

NPT productions went into the awards with 6 nominations.

NPT Reports: Aging Matters is a major, multi-year project that’s focusing on the critical issues facing older citizens in Middle Tennessee. Now in its third year, the series has already focused on end-of-life issues, caregiving, aging in place, economics of aging, and health aging. In spring 2016, a new Aging Matters documentary about Alzheimer’s and dementia will be completed. In addition to documentaries, the Aging Matters project includes short videos, televised discussions, extensive community engagement, a resource-rich website and free DVDs for community partners. Watch the documentaries and updates online at the Aging Matters website.

NPT Reports: Aging Matters is made possible by the support of lead sponsor Cigna-HealthSpring; The West End Home Foundation; The HCA Foundation; The Jeanette Travis Foundation. Additional funding is provided by The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and Jackson National.

Tennessee Crossroads travels the highways and byways of Tennessee, highlighting the personalities, crafts, places, foods and events that make Tennessee unique. Explore the series by visiting the Tennessee Crossroads website.

Tennessee Crossroads is made possible by the support of the Bridgestone Americas Trust Fund.

NPT would also like to congratulate several of our friends and partners on their Emmy wins, including Todd Squared (Bluegrass Underground); The Jackson Foundation Media Productions (Tennessee’s Wild Side); and Sockeye Media (Mother Goose Club).

For a full list of winners please visit the NATAS-Nashville Chapter website at http://emmynashville.org/.

As in Mercy Street, the Civil War brought roads to freedom

Watch the Mercy Street series conclusion online at video.wnpt.org through March 6. Inside Mercy Street, a behind-the-scenes feature about the series, airs 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12.


Hannah and Adam Watkins (c. 1865). Tennessee State Museum

Hannah and Adam Watkins (c. 1865). Tennessee State Museum

By Rob DeHart
Tennessee State Museum

A recurring theme in Mercy Street is the possibility of freedom embraced by African-Americans during the Civil War. As the story progresses, Samuel, Aurelia and others take actions to decide their own fates. Throughout the South, enslaved people recognized that the war was crippling the institution of slavery, which led them to challenge the authority of their masters in many different ways. In Tennessee, more than 20,000 African-American men claimed their new status as freedmen by joining the Union Army.

Rob DeHart headshotOne of these soldiers was Adam Watkins. Watkins was born in Tennessee around 1843 and though records are unclear, he was likely enslaved northwest of Nashville in Montgomery or Robertson county. Slaves were not permitted to marry legally, but Adam had a lifelong relationship with an enslaved woman named Hannah. They had two children, John and Julia, by the time the Union Army occupied Middle Tennessee in 1862.

Many African-Americans responded to military occupation by escaping to areas controlled by the Union Army where they were often set to work constructing fortifications or, as shown in Mercy Street, working in hospitals. Allowing these former slaves to join the war effort and sometimes take up arms was considered controversial by many in the U.S. government and the Union Army. However, the calls of Frederick Douglass and other advocates, as well as the need for more soldiers in order to defeat the Confederacy, led to the creation of segregated units.

Adam Watkins enlisted in the Union Army on December 7, 1863, in Clarksville and was assigned to the 16th United States Colored Troop Infantry Regiment. He spent most of his service guarding strategic points around Chattanooga until December 1864 when the 16th participated in the Battle of Nashville. Following the battle, Watkins and his regiment pursued the defeated Confederate Army of Tennessee southward. Only two years earlier virtually every aspect of Watkins’ life was controlled by a slaveholder; now he was contributing to the surrender of the government that supported his former bondage.

Watkins mustered out of the army on April 30, 1866. Now that their marriage could be legally recognized, he and Hannah obtained a marriage license and in 1869 moved to Pulaski County in Illinois where they joined a community of other former slaves. The couple went on to have seven more children.

It would take another hundred years and overcoming many obstacles for his descendants to realize the full benefits of citizenship, but Adam Watkins laid the foundation by demonstrating that newly freed African Americans could contribute to the defense of the United States.


Rob DeHart is a curator at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville where he specializes in technology and cultural history. DeHart received his M.A. in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and is a peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums.

Did Civil War soldiers like those on Mercy Street suffer PTSD?

Emma Green (Hannah James) and Tom Fairfax (Cameron Monaghan). Credit: Courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS

Emma Green (Hannah James) and Tom Fairfax (Cameron Monaghan). Credit: Courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS

By Rob DeHart
Tennessee State Museum

Mercy Street exposes the psychological impact of war through the moving story of Confederate soldier Tom Fairfax who arrived at the hospital traumatized by seeing a friend die in battle. Though Tom seems to improve, he eventually takes a drastic step when given the opportunity to escape the hospital and return to his unit.

Rob DeHart headshotToday Tom would likely be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD arose as a term to describe the psychological symptoms experienced by some Vietnam War soldiers returning from military combat. Symptoms included anxiety, insomnia and flashbacks to combat situations triggered by everyday activities. Conditions similar to these have gone by other names in previous wars: During World War II soldiers suffered from “combat fatigue”; during World War I the diagnosis was “shell shock.”

Did Civil War veterans also suffer from PTSD? It seems quite likely they did, but wartime records do not give us a lot to go on. Civil War doctors surmised that patients such as Mercy Streets Tom Fairfax simply suffered from “nervousness.” A worse outcome for patients was when doctors labeled them as “malingerers” or “hospital rats” who were avoiding military duty by faking illness. A systematic approach to understanding mental illness did not begin to develop until the late 19th century, thus details about soldiers’ psychological status are sparse in Civil War medical records.

For example, the surgeon for the Confederate 11th Tennessee Infantry Regiment attributed the July 1861 death of Pvt. S.W. Tucker to the “effects of measles.” However, the surgeon went on to write: “This man died of fright from every circumstance connected with his case.” The doctor recognized his patient was afflicted by something other than measles, but he had no way to diagnose or treat the man.

 A hallway in the Tennessee Insane Asylum in Nashville, 1885. Tennessee State Museum

A hallway in the Tennessee Insane Asylum in Nashville, 1885. Tennessee State Museum

Only recently have historians began looking at records of Civil War veterans admitted to mental health hospitals (then known as “insane asylums”) to see if they can determine what “died of fright” really means. Patients who were known to be veterans had symptoms that were consistent with PTSD, but drawing broad conclusions about their diagnoses is challenging. Two-thirds of Civil War soldiers’ deaths occurred from disease in camps and hospitals. How much non-combat related trauma contributed to the poor mental health of some Civil War veterans?

One thing is certain – the Civil War was a life-altering event for many people on the battlefield and the home front. It is reasonable to assume that mental stress manifested itself in participants in many different ways both during and after the war. There is still much historical research to be done in this area, but perhaps the time is right for us to finally hear their stories.

Mercy Street concludes 9 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21, with a midweek encore Thursday, Feb. 25, at 9 p.m. Inside Mercy Street, a behind-the-scenes feature about the series, airs 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12.


Rob DeHart is a curator at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville where he specializes in technology and cultural history. DeHart received his M.A. in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and is a peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums.

For Mercy Street’s patients infection was the main enemy

Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor). Courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS

Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor). Courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS

By Rob DeHart
Tennessee State Museum

Each of the last three Mercy Street episodes featured a dramatization of 19th-century surgical procedures: leg amputation, skull surgery (trephination) and a cesarean operation. In each case Dr. Foster and his assistants performed the procedures in non-sterile conditions and yet the patients survived. The first was a fairly common occurrence during the Civil War, but the second, the survival of the patients, was much more challenging.

Rob DeHart headshotStandards of cleanliness in Civil War hospitals were very low compared to today’s standards. Surgeons moved from patient to patient without cleaning medical instruments and bandages were sometimes reused rather than discarded. Insufficient laundry services meant that patients rarely changed gowns. Under these conditions infection and disease spread rapidly, affecting patients, surgeons and nurses.

But with so many patients, doctors were able to experiment with different treatments. One of those was to apply a compound containing bromine with its antiseptic properties to fight the bacteria that caused gangrene in wounds. Cleaning surgical instruments in chlorinated water also helped stop the spread of bacteria in hospitals. At the beginning of the war, death from wound infection following amputation was as high as 50 percent, but it became a small threat by the end of the war, thus it was one of the war’s medical success stories.

Capitol saw

Civil War-era saw used for arm and leg amputations. Tennessee State Museum

Amputations of arms and legs was the prescribed treatment for most bullet wounds because it prevented the infection in the wound from spreading to the rest of the body. The numerous amputations performed during the war ‒ 30,000 by the Union Army alone ‒ saved the lives of many soldiers. In Mercy Street’s third episode, Dr. Foster decides this is the best course of action to save a young Confederate soldier.

In one of the most dramatic medical scenes in Mercy Street, Dr. Foster drills into a patient’s skull to relieve pressure on the brain. The practice dates back to ancient times but was rarely successful because unsterilized instruments introduced into the brain cavity led to infections. Most documented cases from the Civil War show patients initially improving, then dying a couple of days later from infections.

Nonetheless, as Mercy Street demonstrates, the Civil War provided surgeons with opportunities to document diverse cases, try new procedures and lay the groundwork for the incredible medical advances that would occur in the ensuing decades.

Mercy Street airs 9 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 21, with a midweek encore most Thursdays at 9 p.m.


Rob DeHart is a curator at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville where he specializes in technology and cultural history. DeHart received his M.A. in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and is a peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums.