Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine
Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1859) made an indelible mark on the field of medicine, and left a legacy of radical techniques, futuristic notions and medical grotesqueries. Author/poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz has justifiably rescued his story from musty annals and enlivened his deeds and the (medical) times in which he lived.
American-born and European-educated, the ambitious Mütter added the umlaut to his last name to create an alluring “brand” and landed a teaching post at the prestigious Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, America’s “medical Athens.” With ambidexterity and unusual quickness, he operated on the most hopeless cases, demonstrating his seemingly magical skills. Soon, the afflicted sought him out; an enthusiastic Aptowicz does not hesitate to make a Christ-like comparison (“if I could just touch the hem of his garment…”): “They arrived with mangled fingers that had been crushed between train cars, dangling thumbs that had been sliced almost completely off their hands, eyes blasted nearly to pulp by gunpowder, and broken bones of every shape, size, and position.”
"Author/poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz has justifiably rescued [Mütter's] story from musty annals and enlivened his deeds and the (medical) times in which he lived."
Aptowicz paints a harrowing picture of operations performed before antisepsis and anesthesia, with a bit of mild wine for pain relief and straps to hold patients down while surgeons leapt in with knives, hooks and saws. And, one could say, those patients were the lucky ones, since the average lifespan was around 40, septic fever killed many a wounded man or mother in childbirth, and anyone who got injured usually died soon after.
Mütter worked alongside another noted physician, Charles D. Meigs, yet the two men were polar opposites. Meigs, representing the medical establishment, scorned the use of ether, while the more compassionate Mütter thought it a godsend. Mutter maintained the high standard of surgical cleanliness he had observed in Europe; Meigs believed that upper class men were naturally clean, so he only occasionally rinsed his hands with warm water. Mütter advised his patients to desensitize the patient’s body with massage for days prior to surgery, which Meigs referred to as “fussing about.”
Mütter himself lived little longer than the average, unable to cure himself of weaknesses that had persisted since childhood. Before he died, he secured a home for his collection of medical oddities, including the famous cast of the head of a woman with a horn growing out of her forehead. This memorable medley of curiosities eventually became Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on October 10, 2014