BOOK REVIEW: Heroes of Mercy Street by Pamela D. Toler


Title: Heroes of Mercy Street
Author: Pamela D. Toler
Publication: February 16, 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Biographies
Pages: 304

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SYNOPSIS: (From Goodreads)

A look at the lives of the real nurses depicted in the PBS show Mercy Street
HEROINES OF MERCY STREET tells the true stories of the nurses at Mansion House, the Alexandria, Virginia, mansion turned war-time hospital and setting for the new PBS drama Mercy Street. Among the Union soldiers, doctors, wounded men from both sides, freed slaves, politicians, speculators, and spies who passed through the hospital in the crossroads of the Civil War, were nurses who gave their time freely and willingly to save lives and aid the wounded. 
These women saw casualties on a scale Americans had never seen before, and medicine was at a turning point. HEROINES OF MERCY STREET follows the lives of women like Dorothea Dix, Mary Phinney, Anne Reading, and more before, during, and after their epic struggle in Alexandria and reveals their personal contributions to this astounding period in the advancement of medicine.


Back in 2016, there was a show on PBS called Mercy Street.  I, of course, had to record it since it was A: Civil War related and B: medical related.  I watched at night after my kids went to bed and I nursed my youngest child, probably staying up way past when I should have for having three kids but oh well.  I got excited some time later when I saw that there was a book that was a companion for it,  I got way to excited I am sure at the time and purchased the book back in (cough cough) Nov of 2016.  Yes, I am aware it sat on my shelf for that long before I finally listened to it.  I was excited to delve in.

This isn’t a story that really has a beginning middle and end.  I mean it does you have the beginning of the war the middle and the end of the war.  This book is about how nursing became a career in the US during the Civil War.  Dorothea Dix speared headed the whole thing.  First, she started campaigning for the better treatment of those in mental health wards and those that were special needs.  She saw a need as the Civil War grew that there was a need for sanitary conditions to treat wounds and there was a need for nurses to nurse them back to health.  She used Florence Nightingale as a model and based her nursing ideas on hers.  She had very specific guidelines for nurses. Basically homely, unmarried, and over the age of 30 where you are considered a spinster, among other things.  

This book was absolutely fascinating.  I learned things about how nursing grew in the United States that I was unaware of.  What it boiled down to is nursing grew out of homemakers who cared for sick family members.  There was more too it but the gist of getting nursing started in the Civil War was just that,  the experience that she was looking for.  Did you know that in the Civil War hospitals that were run mainly by women had roughly, from what I am recalling, had about 5% higher survival rate than those that were run mainly by men.  In the grand scheme of things that is a large number I think.  Women were able to deal with large quantities of men after battles and deal with them well.  They had to deal with piles of amputated limbs, and gangrenous wounds, among other things.  They did it with grace and dignity. They held hands of dying men and wrote letters home to loved ones, be it a: I am fine letter or I am writing you my last letter filled with love.  The book tells the story of several big players who were woman powerhouses in nursing.  Reading this book has made me even prouder to be a woman in healthcare. 

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