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A way with Mutter

New book unveils the mystery man behind our most mysterious museum.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, author of “Dr. Mutter’s Marvels”
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, author of “Dr. Mutter’s Marvels”Read more

UNLIKE well-known Philadelphia landmarks that bear such famous names as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the Mutter Museum's namesake is a relatively mysterious fellow.

Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter did not start or finish his life in Philadelphia, but during his 15-year tenure in the mid-1800s as professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College, he was among the country's finest physicians - the city's first surgeon to use ethyl ether anesthesia and an early pioneer in plastic surgery.

This much we know.

Writer/poet Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, who grew up in Northeast Philly, aimed to pen the first biography of this enigmatic surgeon, and, after 15 years of research, Aptowicz's Dr. Mutter's Marvels is set for release Sept. 4 from Gotham Books.

Aptowicz said that she wanted to provide a history of Dr. Mutter that read more like a novel than a dry medical article.

"I believe that Mutter's story is made to inspire a mainstream audience," Aptowicz said, in a phone interview. "I wanted to tell that story in a way that was most appealing and most engaging to that audience."

Aptowicz said that she modeled her book after contemporary historical accounts, like Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which affords the author some creative license in recounting the story.

Just as The Devil in the White City used the 1893 World Fair as context for the rapidly changing world in which serial killer H. H. Holmes operated, Dr. Mutter's Marvels uses the 19th-century emergence of modern medicine as a backdrop for the eccentric life of Dr. Mutter.

Mutter was born in Virginia in 1811 and orphaned as a child in an age when diseases spread mercilessly, consuming entire families. He was drawn to medicine, and after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania at just 20 years old, he went to Paris, the epicenter of contemporary medicine. There, he was introduced to plastic surgery, which would come to define his livelihood.

The pre-anesthesia era that made up much of Mutter's career was one of great paradox: By helping ailing patients, surgeons subjected them to agonizing torture. And, doctors nationwide were still reluctant to adopt the idea that invisible germs were spreading disease, explained Dr. Steven Peitzman, a professor of medicine and medical historian at Drexel University.

Aptowicz grew up in the Somerton section of Northeast Philly that mostly housed government workers - not exactly a writer's haven. Her father worked for the Philadelphia Water Department and her mother, the Internal Revenue Service. A Central High graduate, she often visited the Mutter Museum on school field trips.

Later on, while paying her way through New York University, Aptowicz entered a screenwriting competition to create a screenplay that merged science with mainstream culture.

She immediately thought of Mutter.

Her screenplay, "Mutter," would go on to win a couple of awards, including one from the Philadelphia Film Festival, she said. She imagined that the tale would work well as a book but said she didn't see herself as the author.

However, after writing a different book a few years later - this one about the slam-poetry movement - she decided to continue her foray into nonfiction with a Mutter biography.

She spent 2010 and 2011 studying primary sources at the Mutter Museum and Jefferson libraries, transcribing letters and journals by hand. Aptowicz said that an early copy of the manuscript had 147 pages of end notes.

Some early reviews of Dr. Mutter's Marvels have been positive, but a few have criticized Aptowicz's research, arguing that she oversimplified Mutter's life as a series of good-triumphs-over-evil moments.

Responding to one negative review, Aptowicz said: "I'm going to guess the reader is someone who is used to scholarly, academic-type histories with tons of footnotes."

A spokesman for the Mutter Museum said the museum's staff had not yet read Aptowicz's book and could not comment on it. Jefferson University library's head archivist, Michael Angelo, said he was quite fond of the book, especially Aptowicz's engaging writing style. "She could make dish water and cardboard exciting," he said.

Angelo said he doesn't mind if Aptowicz "rounded corners" in her book. "That's how she wanted to shape this story," he said. "Historically, she's got a lot of legitimacy." Aptowicz and Angelo will have a free public conversation about Mutter and the book Sept. 16 at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Aptowicz said her poetry and nonfiction have "always been a bit married." She laments the fact that most people think that "only academics" can enjoy science, history and poetry.

"Really," she said, "anyone can."