By Emily Udell
IUPUI professor Jane Schultz never expected her years of digging around in library archives to land her a gig reading scripts and consulting on a television show. But that’s exactly what happened when the producers of the PBS medical drama “Mercy Street” reached out for her expertise. “I was thrilled,” said Schultz, whose interest in Civil War narratives began in elementary school with a story about a boy who became a Union spy. “I’m an English professor and much of my career has been spent immersed in 19thcentury letters.”
Schultz’s scholarship attracted the creators of “Mercy Street,” a serial set in Union-occupied Alexandria, Va., during the Civil War. Inspired by real events and characters, the show follows the lives of volunteer nurses, doctors, soldiers, runaway slaves and more as their lives intersect in the luxury hotel turned medical facility. Since 2014, Schultz has been working with a team of academic experts from around the country to help ensure the authenticity of the show, from its portrayal of military operations to the dialogue and adherence to Victorian sensibilities.
“I have this vast knowledge of women’s work during the war,” said Schultz, who reads through and reviews various aspects of every episode’s script, from dialogue to the interaction between characters to the mores of the
period. Schultz, who has taught at Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis since 1988, bases much of her scholarship on primary source documents such as historical memoirs, letters, government records and diaries from the Civil War era. Some have never been transcribed. A two-time cancer survivor, Schultz also has an abiding interest in medical narratives, which makes her knowledge indispensable to the show.
“Sometimes my comments are pertinent to the language, other times to what went on in hospitals in the era,” Schultz said.
More than 20,000 women provided various relief services to the Union during the war. When Schultz began diving into Civil War memoirs, diaries and letters during graduate school at the University of Michigan, she discovered an academic niche that hadn’t been fully explored and an opportunity to tell richer narratives about the complex lives of women in the era.
“I could see there was a very different story,” Schultz said. “I was able to deconstruct the mythology of the ministering angel.”
Schultz’s research became the basis for several books she has authored on Civil War medical history, including “Women at the Front” and “The Birth Place of Souls.” These volumes caught the attention of Lisa Wolfinger, co-creator and co-producer of “Mercy Street,” early in the process of developing the show. The creators wanted to depict the period as realistically as possible.
“Research we do at every stage of writing and production informs everything we do — whether in constructing plausible storylines rooted in history or ensuring authenticity in wardrobe, sets and props,” Wolfinger said. “When you are tackling the Civil War on PBS, you are duty bound to get every detail right!”
When a female nurse falls gravely ill in the second season of the show and hospital staff attempt to reduce her temperature in an icy bath, Schultz critiqued a draft of the script that had male characters violating norms of mid-19th century behavior.
“Her deep knowledge of Victorian mores based on decades of research into primary source material allowed us to add subtle behavioral nuance to a scene that otherwise might have felt forced and anachronistic,” Wolfinger said.
The scene was filmed with the female character wearing a shift and a male doctor touching her only sparingly as the scandalized male hospital chief merely peeks in from the hall.
“I think of [Schultz] as being kind of a time traveler,” said Robert Rebein, professor and chair of the English department at IUPUI. “She spent her professional career digging deep into these archives no one knows anything about, and it’s like she’s able to come out of that and report to us what it was like to live in that time.”
Schultz even donned a corset and hoop skirt for a part as an extra in the latest season. “One is never sure what one is getting into,” she said. “There was such architecture in this clothing, it was incredible! You could not even fill your lungs with air.”
The future of “Mercy Street” is unclear. PBS is still looking for a corporate sponsor to support a third season of the show. “We need ‘Mercy Street’ fans to speak up on Amazon Prime reviews and PBS’ ‘Mercy Street’ website if they want a season three,” Wolfinger said.
The final episode of the second season of is slated to air at 8 p.m. tonight on WFYI-20. Amazon Prime members can access an archive of both seasons.