Dr. Mütter's Marvels

A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine

By Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

Gotham Books. 372 pp. $27.50

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Reviewed by Marie McCullough


Thomas Dent Mütter is best known for the museum based on his collection of anatomical oddities that bears his name at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. But he was much more than just a collector, as Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz documents in Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine.

Mütter was a medical pioneer who specialized in plastic reconstructive surgery during the Victorian era, when even minor operations were grisly and often fatal. As a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College, he played a significant role in bringing American medicine out of this darkness, despite his early death at 48. He championed antiseptic technique, ether anesthesia, and recovery rooms. He also was a gifted teacher whose specimens illustrated his lectures.

Aptowicz's engaging biography is a window on the primitive technology and inhumane attitudes he helped to change in the mid-1800s. But her "true tale" sometimes feels like hagiography .

Born in Virginia in 1811, the only child of merchant-class parents, Mütter was orphaned at 7, became the ward of a distant maternal relative, and was shipped off to a top boarding school. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania medical school at 20, then studied with master surgeons in the "medical mecca" of Paris before returning to Philadelphia. Plagued by poor health, he married but had no children.

He was also an unabashed fop: "Mütter's colorful silk suits were a shocking contrast to the staid black, gray, and brown Quaker-inspired fashions found on Philadelphia's streets," the author writes. "But as always, he didn't mind the stares."

Aptowicz, a poet who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and first visited the Mütter Museum in fourth grade, jumbles the chronology of Mütter's early years, jumping around in time and place. Her tale is strongest when she delves into the development of Philadelphia's rival medical schools and the jockeying that led Mütter to join an illustrious Jefferson team, the "Famous Faculty of '41." A key member was Charles D. Meigs, an obstetrician-gynecologist whose misogyny was surpassed only by his arrogance. Aptowicz uses Meigs as a foil for Mütter, the epitome of empathy and kindness.

Alas, the book falters where it should be the most detailed and dramatic - in the operating theater. The descriptions of Mütter's surgeries are vague and oversimplified, the outcomes invariably glorious. This may reflect Aptowicz's nonmedical background, but judging from her end notes and sources, she could have researched more deeply.

Mütter's last years were miserable. He quit surgery because gout crippled his hands. He died of the same thing that killed his father, tuberculosis, though Aptowicz never explicitly says so, referring to his "malady," "weak lungs," and bloodstained handkerchiefs.

In the next-to-last chapter, Mütter wills his precious collection to the College of Physicians. "Three months later," Aptowicz writes, "Thomas Dent Mütter died at the age of forty-seven." Except he didn't. He died at 48, as Aptowicz correctly says in her prologue.

Marie McCullough covers medicine for The Inquirer. mmccullough@phillynews.com 215-854-2720 @repopter