Dr. Mutter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Dr. Mutters Marvels by Cristin O-Keefe AptowiczDr. Mutter’s Marvels is an utterly fascinating story about one of the early pioneers of modern medicine and surgery, Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter.  He was flamboyant in his dress from a very young age and it carried through and into his career as a brilliant surgeon where he sported his expensive and colorful suits into the operating rooms.

It was a time when surgeries were performed without anesthesia or sanitation.  One had to be more afraid of dying of an ailment or so deformed that one might as well die to go under the knife at this time.  Surgeries were performed before an audience as the patient was held down screaming as they were sliced open.  The surgeon wore the same clothes throughout the entire day and all the surgeries and the surgical equipment not even wiped clean.  And then the patient, if they survived, was sent home immediately after the surgery.

One of the early “strange” notions that Mutter had was a deep compassion for his patients.  He would spend great amounts of time with them going over every phase of what he was going to do, including the level of pain they would be forced to endure.  His specialty was reconstructing deformed or badly injured people, burn victims, serious birth defects like cleft palates,

The author presents Dr. Mutter with all his flamboyancy, his compassion and his innovative thinking in a highly readable manner.  This was the first I had ever heard of the man.  Father of plastic surgery, making possible for monsters to again walk out in the light of day.  Pioneer in the concept of sanitation in surgery and a champion to his patients as he fought for and got wards for them to recover in after surgery, where they could be ministered to, watched over and their wounds properly dressed to speed healing.

He was also a collector of unique and bizarre specimens.  Body parts, whole bodies, organs, bones, often paying huge sums to take them off the side show network to be housed in his lab.  The book is full of illustrations, pictures and quotes from Mutter and those that were part of his time and world.  This added to my liking of the book as I have always had a fondness for illustrated books.

His approach in teaching was also unique of the times as he engaged his students in discussions and problem solving.  At a time when all others simply lectured to a silent audience.  As such, his classes were sought out and he became a favorite among the student body.  This, coupled with his compassionate approach to healing brought the school a tidal wave of fame and income.

He was also one of the early supporters of anesthesia, for which he received much derision from his contemporaries.  They believed that a patient needed to remain awake and be an active participant in their surgery.  That anesthesia would increase the mortality rate of patients, and was against God’s will.  Mutter not only saw it as an opportunity to minimize the pain of surgery, but also the advantage it would allow in longer surgeries that weren’t possible without such a discovery.  He even devoted large amounts of time in developing a stabler and more consistent ether mixture as well as the mask for administering it.

Dr. Mutter had far too little time on this earth.  He had been plagued by a “weak disposition” since childhood and it carried through into his adulthood and career.  But, what he accomplished in his short time was remarkable.  His students numbered some of the pioneers in medicine from that time, including the first Surgeon General.

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels is an excellent and fascinating read in the history of surgery, teaching and the brilliant and colorful man who changed the entire landscape with each step.  And Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz does a stellar job in bringing this forgotten figure back into the limelight he deserves.

April 2015

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