While there’s something fascinating about old medical equipment and collections of oddities, it’s harder to truly appreciate the reality of life before modern surgery, let alone the ostracism and pain faced by individuals who suffered from conditions routinely corrected today. In this compelling biography of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1850), Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz brings a poet’s sensibilities to the life of an American surgeon who was at the forefront of advances in medical education and reconstructive surgery.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s medical college, Mütter was a brilliant and inventive teacher who introduced Socratic methods into his lectures, unusual for his time. He also became known for tackling complex surgical cases.

One of the most compelling aspects of Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is the inclusion of detailed accounts of actual surgeries Mutter performed. In one instance, the young surgeon tries to repair the severe cleft palate of 25-year-old Nathaniel Dickey, whose face is literally “split down the middle.” The surgery is made even more dangerous and difficult because it is being done without anesthesia—if Nathaniel vomits, for instance, the delicate surgical work could be ruined. Similarly, Mütter undertook to help women whose disfiguring burns in all-too-common household fires left them as “monsters” in the eyes of society.

Sadly, Thomas Mütter died at 48. His legacy lives on at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which includes his own collection of unusual medical specimens, as well as exhibitions dedicated to exploring and preserving medical history. Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is both an insightful portrait of a pioneering surgeon and a reminder of how far medicine has come.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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