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 middle of the 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 Mütter Museum.
Award-winning writer Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz vividly chronicles how Mütter’s efforts helped establish Philadelphia as a global mecca for medical innovation—despite intense resistance from his numerous rivals. (Foremost among them: Charles D. Meigs, an influential obstetrician who loathed Mütter’s “overly” modern medical opinions.) In the narrative spirit of The Devil in the White City, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels interweaves an eye-opening portrait of nineteenth-century medicine with the riveting biography of a man once described as the “P. T. Barnum of the surgery room.”
A best Book of 2014
The Onion’s AV Club
School Library Journal
“Ms. Aptowicz rescues Mütter the man from undeserved obscurity, recreating his short life and hard times with wit, energy and gusto. Her book, like the Mütter Museum, is a reminder that the course of human suffering and the progress of medical science are often messy, complex and stranger than can be imagined.”
—Wall Street Journal
“[Aptowicz’s] passion for the topic is what makes this book ultimately fascinating…The research is meticulous, and the author recounts Mütter’s life with flair. It’s a fantastic yarn….a compelling tale.”
—Austin American Statesmen
“Performance poet Aptowicz turns her attention to the birth of modern American Medicine, and the astonishing degree that it was influenced by one man, in this moving and delicately crafted biography… Aptowicz shows Mütter, beloved by his students, evolving from a mischievous, impatient young doctor to an increasingly spiritual man beset by premature illness, and her writing is as full of life as her subject.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Biography of a flamboyant surgeon who helped transform American medicine… In her deftly crafted narrative, the author provides an absorbing account of the charismatic surgeon’s life and career as well as a vivid look at the medical practices and prejudices of his time. His students adored him, and the disfigured flocked to him. European contemporaries saw him as a “dashing, outspoken, idiosyncratic American visionary.” His life story will move many readers. His life story will move many readers.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Aptowicz has penned a fast-moving and popular history of the early to mid-19th-century American and Parisian medical worlds, making the most of works by and about Mütter’s contemporaries. The book connects the dots among the doctor’s youthful dandyism, his attractiveness, his kindness toward his patients, and his fascination with what we would today call reconstructive plastic surgery, of which he was a pioneer… Written for the general public, this will be of great interest to large public libraries…”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“An extraordinary, moving and humbling story about a remarkable and compassionate surgeon who changed the face of medicine forever. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz immerses us in the strange world of Dr. Thomas Mütter and unfolds the tale of his pioneering approach to surgery with verve, wit and sensitivity. We are all of us the richer for Dr. Mütter’s visionary work and the legacy he left us in the shape of one of the world’s most beguiling museums.”
—Wendy Moore, author of The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery
“Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz has not just written a highly readable and affecting biography of the singularly debonair doctor, the ameliorator of deformities of skin and bone, and the beloved teacher behind Philadelphia’s world-renowned Mütter Museum. She has given us a stirring account of the exigencies of medical practice in nineteenth century Philadelphia; the consequential controversies; the not-so-petty rivalries; the ghastly bravura of medically sanctioned spectacles; and, the outcomes for patients, then and now, of a profession divided and at odds. An indispensable companion to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels will enable visitors to encounter the collections in an entirely new and important way.”
—Mary Cappello, author of Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration and the Curious Doctor who Extracted Them
“[Aptowicz’s] poetic eye is exactly what makes Dr. Mütter’s Marvels a marvel itself….With clinical precision, Aptowicz lays bare the facts of Mütter’s colorful, tumultuous life….For a book so immersed in the intimate perspective of its subject, it also brings a broad perspective about everything from the development of modern medicine to women’s issues of the 19th century, not to mention how norms of beauty and the definitions of monstrosity have inspired and held us back over the centuries. With Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, Aptowicz keeps a steady hand on her historical scalpel, even as she wields it with a winning flourish.”
“As a huge fan of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, I was excited to get my hands on this rich biography of the real doctor, Thomas Mütter, a 19th-century surgeon who treated people with misunderstood conditions and amassed a fascinating collection of medical oddities.”
“Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is nonfiction narrative at its best….Aptowicz is refreshingly careful with her language, keeping the narrative speculation to a minimum, painting most of her scenery with the weight of her research. She revels in the details, but largely lets the reader draw their own conclusions. The result is an approachable history of a man and of a time period that does exactly what narrative non-fiction should do: answers the questions the reader never realized they had.”
—The Onion’s A.V. Club
“With a flair for narrative, and having researched extensively, Aptowicz chronicles the ascent of Mütter’s career and his numerous surgical breakthroughs… Aptowicz’s prose works the same way Mütter did — with speed, elegance, and tactile accuracy. In her capable hands, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is a biography of a scientific innovator that conjures, more vividly than it otherwise might, the atmosphere of the often terrifying and swiftly transforming field of medicine in the 19th century.”
—The Los Angeles Review of Books
“Dr. Mütter’s Marvels shares some of the very best qualities of Mary Roach’s iconic Stiff, especially a gross-out curiosity factor and great story-telling. Add a larger-than-life subject and you have narrative nonfiction magic. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz tells her story with gusto, taking the reader from the hospitals of Paris to the great medical colleges of Philadelphia in the first half of the 19th century. There is a lot of medical history here, but it is so unbelievable, so over-the-top (yet true!) that readers will be riveted.”
—School Library Journal (starred review, named a Best book for Teens 2014)
“Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is a fascinating story in its own right, and it’s pried open with the poetic skill of author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, who spent a decade researching it. The book is ceaselessly interesting but not showy, and Aptowicz expertly paints the scenes with broad brushstrokes and tiny details. It’s a nearly perfect piece of non-fiction.”
—The Onion’s AV Club, named a Best Book of 2014
“This is one of those historical science tales that seems too weird to be true. Our modern notion of surgery, complete with anaesthesia and after-care, was invented by a late nineteenth century plastic surgeons, as Aptowicz unravels this engrossing story.”
—io9.com, named a Best Science Book of 2014
“A truly Philadelphian saga deftly told by City of Brotherly Love native Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is a comprehensive and engaging biography of 19th-century surgeon, teacher and author Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter. Best known these days as the founding force behind the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Mütter was essential at shaping the course of medicine in innumerable ways, and Aptowicz navigates his too-short and highly influential life expertly.”
—Asbury Park Press, named a Best Book of 2014
“Poet and writer Aptowicz, whose various awards and publications attest to her formidable skill and style when dealing with an impressive diversity of subjects… provide[s] such a thorough and compelling account of Mütter’s life and times, his medical innovations and personal fortitude, his enduring legacy, as is to be found between the well-designed covers of this new book.”
—The Austin Chronicle
“Aptowicz does an excellent job of establishing the context of the times and competing personalities…. As Aptowicz clearly shows, ]Mütter’s] legacy lives on in many aspects of medicine we now take for granted.”
“Aptowicz has a keen eye for the era’s grotesque details (amputation accidents, for one thing) and an obvious sympathy for Mütter’s passion and legacy…”
—The Boston Globe
“The cover, the title and the topic promise the macabre and the grotesque, and this story delivers, making it an ideal read. But there’s a sensitivity to Aptowicz’s handling of this story. She could have gone full-on “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” riding the gory details of 19th century surgery and human disfigurements all the way to the bloody bank. Instead, this is a ruminative, sometimes moving work.”
“Aptowicz’s engaging biography is a window on the primitive technology and inhumane attitudes [Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter] helped to change in the mid-1800s…. 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.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Well known as a poet, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s new book Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is compelling and fascinating. The years Aptowicz put into writing it show in her deft mixture of well-researched history, biography, and social commentary.”
—Santa Barbara Independent
“Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz brings a keen sense of drama, as well as her poet’s imagination and specificity of language, to her tale of Mütter’s life, and offers fascinating information about the practice of medicine at a crucial juncture between magic and science. Her enthusiasm for the man and his work shines on every page of her book, and by the end, she’s entertainingly provided ample evidence for her thesis that Mütter was a major medical innovator.”
“Aptowicz has written a breezy, yet substantial biography of Thomas Dent Mutter, the Philadelphia plastic surgeon who introduced or promoted many medical innovations.”
—The New York Public Library
“[a] beautifully detailed biography … Mütter started out as a foppish medical student in Paris, but ended a hero tending to the injured poor… What emerges here is a dual portrait of the driven doctor and a medical field transformed by scientific, if sometimes eccentric, pioneers.”
“Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz paints a moving portrait of a surgeon who had ample doses of empathy”
“Mütter’s Marvels is both an insightful portrait of a pioneering surgeon and a reminder of how far medicine has come.”
“A mesmerizing biography….”
“In Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, Aptowicz transplants the reader ringside into the first American operating theaters… The first biography about Mütter’s life…vividly reconstructs the wild world of medical science circa 1820-1860, and how important Mütter was to some of its advances…”
“[T]his was an incredibly fascinating read about the development of innovative ideas that have helped make modern medicine what it is today.”
How did you first learn about Thomas Mütter, and what inspired you to write about him?
COA: Growing up in Philadelphia, the Mütter Museum was a part of my childhood, but it wasn’t until after I moved to New York City for college and was frequently asked about by curious non-Philadelphians that I realized while I knew about the museum’s strange collection of unusual medical specimens, I didn’t know much about how it came to be. I didn’t know if Mütter was the name of a man, or family, or even an acronym. When I decided to research this story in the hopes of securing an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship to help offset the costs of my college education, I was shocked and thrilled to uncover this incredible story which had largely been untold. Almost fifteen years after I first walked into the Mütter Museum archive to do my earliest research on Mütter, I am so excited to finally be sharing Mütter’s life and work in this book.
Some of the material you share is shocking and could be unsettling for someone with a weak stomach. Did you ever feel like Mütter’s story was too difficult to tell?
COA: The Mütter Museum is the most popular science museum in American for people between the ages of 18 and 35, and one of the reasons is because they used the drama and shock of the unusual specimens within their collection to draw attention to, and thus teaching visitors about, the science of our bodies. I tried my best to use that philosophy when writing the book. Humans have a natural curiosity about the limits and extremes about the human body, and I tried to use that natural curiosity as a tool to encourage people to better understand and empathize with the patients, doctors and general citizens of mid-19th century America.
Has Mütter’s rivalry with Meigs been documented before or was it something that you uncovered in your research?
COA: As one of the best known and most prominent obstetricians in American during this lifetime, Meigs had numerous rivalries with various doctors. His best know and most public rivalry was the one he had with Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, which is spotlighted in the book. But the Mutter and Meigs rivalry is not one generally known. Jefferson Medical College was very proud of its “Famous Faculty of ‘41” and likely took pains to hide any discord from the general public. However, the Jefferson Medical College meeting minutes I uncovered in my research told a very different story!
How and when did Jefferson Medical College lose its preeminent position in the United States?
COA: During the earliest parts of Mütter’s career as a physician, there was not a lot of transparency between doctor and patient. Ill or injured people were to follow their doctor’s orders without question. This was dynamic to maintain—especially with surgical patients—as treatments and recovery were often lengthy and painful. I mention this because people often ask about the perceived stubbornness of Philadelphia doctors during Mütter’s career who seemed not only unwilling to support the medical innovations which Mütter embraced, but sometimes even actively spoke against them. That sense of being unquestionably right was an engrained part of what it meant to be a doctor in the early 19th century, and it was the continuation of that attitude—and thus, the resistance to embracing innovation—that caused Philadelphia to lose its place as being the “Medical Athens of America” to cities like Boston and New York City.
What are some of your favorite exhibits on display in the Mütter Museum?
COA: My favorite exhibits are the ones that showcase a singular passion of one particular doctor. For instance, the famous Hyrtle Skull collection—a gathering of 139 skulls from around the world—was the passion project for Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtle (1810-1894) who wanted to counter the claims that one could determine intelligence, personality and racial differences purely by examining skull features. To serve this vision, he collected skulls from around the world, and neatly inscribed the person’s age, place of origin and cause of death in ink onto the bone of the skull. This project took years to complete, but in the end proved his theory. There are numerous examples of this sort of passion within the Mütter Museum’s collection, and I find them endlessly fascinating.
Mütter pioneered many innovations in plastic surgery, but primarily to help those who were horribly disfigured lead normal lives. Do you think he would support the practice of plastic surgery on people who want to look younger or more attractive?
COA: I would hate to speculate on that, but at the very least I think he would be impressed that surgical techniques—and trust between surgeon and patient—had advanced enough that such a thing was possible!
You write that Mütter’s marriage to Mary Alsop was childless. Do you know why this might have been the case?
COA: This was a question that I tried to have answered in my research, but no answer—definitive or speculative—was to be found.
Before you began writing nonfiction, you were known for your poetry and spoken word performances. How difficult was it to switch gears and write a narrative history?
COA: Writing poetry and performing it was great training for writing a longer narrative nonfiction book. The poetry I write is largely autobiographical, and poetry has trained me to look at my life with a detailed eye. My favorite types of poems are ones that look a situation or moment, and tease out a deeper or more complicated meaning from it. This was a helpful skill to have when write Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, but looking at the hard facts of Mütter’s life with a “poet’s eye” helped me to organize and shape a story that I hope is compelling and novel-like, and makes the reader feel a part of Mütter’s world, instead merely reading about it!
What are you working on now?
COA: I am working on another nonfiction book and another poetry collection. You know how the fact that if a shark ever stops swimming, he dies? That’s how I am with writing!