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Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz – Dr. Mütter’s Marvels

December 10, 2014

LibraryThing Early Reviewers91. Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (2014)

Length: 372 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction; History of Science

Started: 15 October 2014
Finished: 11 November 2014

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.
Why do I have it? I’ve never been to the Mütter Museum, but I’ve heard a lot about it, and the history of science and medicine is always something I’m interested in.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 05 August 2014.

non-sterile surgery? I’ll
keep my tonsils, thanks.

Summary: When Thomas Dent Mütter was born – and in fact, even when he was elected as the youngest member of the Jefferson Medical College’s elite “Faculty of ’41” – surgery was a nasty business. The use of ether anasthetic was not yet widespread, so patients were typically awake throughout the procedure, surgeries were performed in amphitheaters frequently lit only by candles or lamps, patients were typically sent home immediately afterwards, and the germ theory of disease was decades off, so many doctors frequently had dirty tools and unwashed hands. Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that the success rate of even the smallest surgeries was abysmally low. But Mütter was poised to change the face of surgery – and the state of American medicine – forever. He championed the use of the new anaesthetics, fought for sterile tools and conditions, and promoted the importance of postoperative care so that his hard work would not be undone – all measures that met with severe pushback from some of his more senior colleagues. But most importantly, apart from developing new surgical techniques, he also treated his patients as people, even those with the severest disfiguring burns or grossest deformities, for whom Mütter’s surgery represented their only chance at a normal life.

Review: Before reading this book, I’d only heard of Thomas Mütter in the context of the Mütter Museum, and even then I didn’t entirely realize what it was. I’d heard about it as kind of a Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not, or collection of medical oddities – I knew that’s where the fused liver of Eng and Chang Bunker was kept – but I didn’t really know anything about Mütter himself other than that he collected such things. (Not the liver; Mütter himself died about fifteen years prior to the Bunkers.) But it turns out that while the museum does contain such things, its main purpose – or at least the purpose of Mütter’s original donation of his private collection – is much more educational than sensational, with most of the specimens being more standard anatomical preparations used in Mütter’s classroom.

Although I am not a medical doctor, I really enjoyed this book. I learned a lot, not only about Mütter and his colleagues at the Jefferson Medical College, but also about the state of medicine at the time. For example, it never occurred to me that severe burns were a huge problem (and source of mortality), particularly for women, prior to the twentieth century: the combination of cooking and heating with fires, multiple layers of clothing made from flammable natural fibers, and the restrictive and difficult-to-remove nature of women’s garments meant that a stray spark likely meant disfigurement if not death. It’s not something that gets talked about much in novels of the time, but it must have been a huge part of daily life, and Mütter was the one to develop a successful surgical treatment that allowed these women to come out of the shadows and resume more normal lives. I also thought it was really interesting that one of Mütter’s students was the Squibb of Bristol-Myers Squibb, who standardized the production of ether then gave away the design of the still rather than patent it – a far cry from the pharmaceutical companies of today. The book included descriptions of Mütter’s teaching style, so it was fascinating to compare that to my own experience, and reflect on how teaching both has and hasn’t changed in the past 170 years. There were also excerpts from one of Mütter’s published lectures at the beginning of each chapter, providing instruction on how doctors and medical students should be, and how they should conduct themselves – something I think a number of my own students (a large fraction of whom are pre-med) would benefit from reading.

So while this book did a very good job of describing Mütter’s work and his legacy and the larger context of his times, it didn’t quite work as a biography on a more personal level. I suspect this is entirely due to the fact that neither Mütter nor his wife kept diaries, and very little of his correspondence survives, so the Aptowicz was left with only the more public documents as her sources. However, this was kind of frustrating as a reader, since while the book painted a very clear picture of him as a doctor, it was quite a bit harder to get a feeling for him as a man, and there were a number of tantalizing questions – what was his marriage like? Why did he and his wife remain childless? What exactly was the disease that plagued him most of his life and ultimately killed him at the young age of 48? (I suspect chronic tuberculosis – that is what most people died of back in the day – but it’s never entirely clear.) Again, given the lack of source material, these are understandable omissions, but they did keep the book from being as well-rounded as I wanted it to be. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended for the med student or doctor in your life, and also worth reading for anyone else interested in the history of science or the history of medicine.

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First Line: Thomas Dent Mutter is dead and the world will forget him.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 164: “Meigs was swiftly creating an extensive literary work, starting with his translation in 1931 of Velpeau’s Traité Élémentaire de l’Art des Accouchements, ou Principes de Tokologie et d’Embryologie, under the title, An Elementary Treatise on Midwifery, or Principles of Tokology and Embryology.” – The science of childbirth; midwifery or obstetrics.
  • p. 281: “There were “the usual osseous, nervous, vascular, muscular, ligamentotaxis, and other preparations for anatomical demonstration,” but his collection also contained a large number of wet preparations (specimens in jar); diseased bones and calculi; an extensive series of paintings and engravings, representing healthy and morbid parts, fractures, dislocations, tumors . . . and the surgical operations that are necessary for their relief; as well as graphic models of medical conditions in wood, plaster, and wax.” – An abnormal concretion in the body, usually formed of mineral salts and found in the gallbladder, kidney, or urinary bladder, for example.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 21, 2015 10:27 am

    I saw this book before but forgot to add it to my TBR pile. I’ll do so now. It sounds interesting.

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