The world of medicine is a complex and frightening place to the common layman, but early in the 19th century, it was cloaked in even deeper mystery and twice as terrifying. Surgical procedures were performed without anesthetic, sanitation was unheard of, and there walked among the public patients with medical problems that left them so severely deformed, their own doctors classified them as ‘monsters.’
Thankfully, we live in the age of modern medicine… an age ushered in by Thomas Dent Mütter, a genius who has been saved from mottled obscurity by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz in the brilliantly constructed Dr. Mütter’s Marvels. The book, a work of literary nonfiction, reconstructs the too short life and tempestuous times of Mütter in a stunning narrative that documents the brilliant work of the man responsible for ushering in the most rudimentary medical practices doctors use today, as well as the art of plastic surgery as common practice in the United States.
Through years of research and the assistance of the Mütter Museum, America’s largest museum of medical oddities (many straight from the original collection of Dr. Mütter himself), Aptowicz has woven a beautiful, tragic, and fascinating retelling of the life of a dedicated surgeon so devoted to his field, he literally changed the way in which medicine was practiced not only through sharing his methods, but inspiring an entire generation of medical and surgical innovators as part of Jefferson College’s famous “Faculty of ’41.”
A sickly man himself, orphaned early by maladies that plagued every member of his family, Mütter took a great deal of pride in tending to the needs of the sick and infirm. Though he had a voracious desire to be recognized as one of the elite, his hunger for fame and notoriety never once detracted from the charm and geniality he shared with his students, nor the kindness and compassion with which he treated his patients in an age where the procedure, not the person, was the focus of the trade.
In documenting the life of this lesser known forefather of modern surgery and medical ethics, Aptowicz utilizes a combination of well placed photos in conjunction with scenes built to spotlight many critical points in Mütter’s life and career. From the first use of the Mütter flap in reconstructive surgery to the final lectures delivered to an eager student body prior to his retirement from teaching in 1856, some of the most critical moments in his brief, but storied surgical career are captured with the same spark of excitement and awe that was surely felt by those who bore witness to Mütter’s prowess in the operating theater, or had the privilege of listening to him speak. Every historical figure, large and small, is given a depth and humanity that brings critical moments in the history of medicine, and the welfare of an infant nation, straight to life with a deft touch that will leave any reader spellbound.
For any avid reader, be it fans of biographies, literary buffs, or those fascinated by the medical field, this book is a critical addition to any library. As a child of parents employed in the medical field, I was swept away not only by the story of this altogether fascinating man, but also by the drama of medical history unfolding in the book’s pages.
The illustrations were of special interest to me, some of which may be a little unsettling to the faint of heart. What especially touched me were the prefaces to each chapter, outlining Mütter’s own philosophies on the duties, responsibilities, and the calling of the doctor and surgeon as a professional, and as a human being. So many things I took for granted, growing up in the back rooms of a hospital pharmacy or the viewing rooms of radiology, I saw in their infancy within the pages of this book. Reading about Mutter’s deft surgical touch was exhilarating, just as living through the agony of the days before his death was heartbreaking… agonizing not because of his physical condition, but because of the heartache he suffered in the uncertainty of his own legacy.
Within the pages of this book, readers will realize that Mütter had nothing to fear. His spirit lives on in the work of those who followed him. This book merely serves as a reminder that, whenever a consent form is signed, a procedure explained, or a life marred by deformity is restored by the surgeon’s blade, somewhere between the first surgical consult and the departure from the hospital, Thomas Dent Mütter is resting well in the knowledge that his work, if not his name, will live on in the operating room.
Imagine undergoing an operation without anesthesia, performed by a surgeon who refuses to sterilize his tools—or even wash his hands. This was the world of medicine when Thomas Dent Mütter began his trailblazing career as a plastic surgeon in Philadelphia during the mid-nineteenth century.
Although he died at just forty-eight, Mütter was an audacious medical innovator who pioneered the use of ether as anesthesia, the sterilization of surgical tools, and a compassion-based vision for helping the severely deformed, which clashed spectacularly with the sentiments of his time. Brilliant, outspoken, and brazenly handsome, Mütter was flamboyant in every aspect of his life. He wore pink silk suits to perform surgery, added an umlaut to his last name just because he could, and amassed an immense collection of medical oddities that would later form the basis of Philadelphia’s renowned Mütter Museum.
Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Avery; Reprint edition (September 8, 2015)
"Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine" by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
Through years of research and the assistance of the Mütter Museum, America’s largest museum of medical oddities (many straight from the original collection of Dr. Mütter himself), Aptowicz has woven a beautiful, tragic, and fascinating retelling of his life. For any avid reader, be it fans of biographies, literary buffs, or those fascinated by the medical field, this book is a critical addition to any library.