Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

Gotham, 2014
384 pp

Kindle version, from the publisher via netgalley - thank you.

Some time back I was asked if I would like to review this book. As it happened, it was already on my ever-growing wishlist, so I agreed.  One - I'm actually quite fascinated with the history of medicine in this country -- far from being a dull topic, sometimes it gets pretty interesting. Two - The Mütter Museum has been on my list of places to see for a long time now, but somehow, whenever we're in Philly, we never have enough time to get there.  After having finished this book,  I'll definitely make time. Dr. Mutter's Marvels offers not only the personal life story of Thomas Dent Mutter (1811 - 1859)  which is interesting in and of itself, but it also examines the state of the medical profession both in America and abroad during the early 19th century.  Mutter remains largely unknown to this day, known mainly for the museum that bears his name, associated with medical oddities.  The author of this book wants to remedy that and bring her subject out of obscurity to reveal the contributions he made to the American medical profession.  It's a good and very readable book -- maybe running to the tangential here and there,  and lighter on source materials than I would have expected, but then again, to be fair to the author, Mutter himself proved to be quite an "elusive" subject.

Thomas Dent Mutter was sickly as a child, and the attempts at healing him were pretty primitive in today's standards. He remembers
"being bled by lancet or by leech, fed tinctures and bitter weeds, left to sweat it out alone in his bed or soaked in a special bath,"
and as he got older and started his studies, he became
"perhaps too familiar with other nonsurgical branches of medicine,  where recovery was often a guessing game." 
But in the long run, Mutter came to understand the importance of  surgery --  rather than being a "guessing game,"  he realized that it was really an "art," a way to provide relief to the suffering.  He also came to realize it as his life's calling. The author discusses how he was highly influenced by his time in Paris, where he was most fascinated with and inspired by those patients referred to as "monsters," those who "hid their faces when walking down the streets," or who
"took cover in back rooms, excused themselves when there were knocks at the door. They saw how children howled at the sight of them. They understood the half a life they were condemned to live and the envy they couldn't help but feel toward others..."
and who were willing to risk death during surgical procedures in hopes of living a better life.

Aside from Mutter the man, Dr. Mutter's Marvels also provides a look at the state of American medicine during this time period -- on the whole,  it wasn't a good time to be sick; god help you if you were.   When Mutter returned to America and started working in  Philadelphia, he started out teaching before joining the Jefferson Medical College as an instructor and a rather compassionate surgeon. He also developed several surgical techniques and instituted new standards such as doctor hygiene, post-op wards and using anesthetics during surgery -- the latter a definite improvement over having the patients down wine or other alcoholic beverages to help ease their pain.  The author also builds her story of Mutter and the medical profession as a whole by highlighting some of his contemporaries  in the medical profession who weren't so keen on Mutter's suggestions --  most notably, his rival Dr. Charles Meigs, who felt that allowing the use of anesthesia for patients was kin to anathema.

Ms. Aptowicz  writes in a way that is accessible to pretty much any reader without overloading her work with a lot of scientific jargon and explanations that could make her book a chore to read. There are a few interesting patient illustrations here and there throughout the book that added a nice touch to the text, and it's very obvious that she is quite enthusiastic about her subject. Most importantly, though, her focus is that Dr. Mutter should  be seen not just as the man who gave his name to a museum but also as a respected doctor and an innovator in the medical profession.  To be truthful, it's not as lively a narrative as, for example,  the work of  Eric Larson or Hampton Sides, but non-science readers such as myself who are  interested in the history of medicine and the history of science will find the book to be very user friendly and above all, very informative. Both reader and professional reviews of this book are already quite positive, and I think Ms. Aptowicz has done a good job here.