“Dr. Mütter’s Marvels” by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Gotham, 371 pages, h ardcover
What comes to mind when you think of having surgery?
Perhaps a kindly doctor sitting down to explain your condition and the surgery. A sterile operating room, and likely a mask to deliver anesthesia. And being delivered to a room after the surgery is over to recover.
All of these ideas came from the mind of Thomas D. Mütter, and they may not have been implemented without his hard work and dedication.
“Dr. Mütter’s Marvels” is a biography of Mütter, but more than that, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz paints a portrait of what early medicine was like in the 1800s. And it was not a pretty picture.
Men could decide to call themselves doctors and start treating people the next day — no license necessary. Instead of having spotless white coats, surgeons took pride in the amount of blood and other fluids staining their jackets. Bedside manner was a radical idea. Doctors who treated their patients as people instead of projects were seen as weak or ineffectual.
But Mütter had different plans. After traveling to Europe as a young man, he was inspired by the practices of the great surgeons he met there, and wanted to bring their methods back home to Philadelphia. He was willing to try surgeries that other doctors wouldn’t even dream of, and he had the skills to perform them successfully.
After quickly building a successful practice, he was invited to be a professor at Jefferson Medical College, one of the first medical schools in the country. And shortly after that, he was elected chair of surgery. He continued to take on risky surgeries and be a leader in medicine, and passed on his knowledge to an audience of eager students.
Aptowicz does a great job with material that could be dry and uninteresting in another author’s hands. Not only does she bring Mütter to life, but she includes stories from other fascinating characters from that time period. The amount of research she did for the book is staggering, and it shows. The book is littered with illustrations and portraits, reminiscent of a textbook, and that reinforces the feeling that you are learning something (in a good way).
The book will also make you realize how much we take for granted. So many ailments and diseases that were suffered in that time period have been, for the most part, wiped out. And it will make you grateful for people like Mütter — pioneers who pushed through what was the status quo in order to find a better way.