Dr. Mütter’s Marvels

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Sep 04, 2014 / 0 comments

Get ready. This is, hands-down, the best biography I’ve ever read. It’s an intimate glance into history, medicine, change, and compassion. It’s the finely crafted life story of a man that we should know, but sadly, many of us don’t. But that’s about to change, thanks to the hard work of writer, researcher, and poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz in her new book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels.


Dr. Mütter’s Marvels - best biography I've ever read!


Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter was a doctor that altered history, whose techniques are still in use today, who taught countless surgeons and changed even more lives. A handsome man with a penchant for flamboyant clothing and an even deeper desire to care for his patients, Dr. Mütter was beloved by many.

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is the story of Dr. Mütter, of course, but is also the history of a nation, a medical field, of everyday people that lived because of him. No dry tale, never fear - Aptowicz is a storyteller par excellence. She brings readers into history as fully as if we were there alongside Dr. Mütter, treating patients, teaching, full of curiosity, and always, always learning. In the 1800s, Philadelphia was the center of medical learning in the US, but was also rife with competing theories about medicine, germs, treatment protocol, and even rival medical schools. She makes Philadelphia in the 1800s come alive. The wealth of rich details and characters (and disagreements) populating the story make this book an extraordinary read.

Did you know that in the 1800s, many doctors thought that anesthesia was a bad thing? Dr. Mütter was a huge proponent of it, as he always cared about each patient and thought that having the patient out during surgery could only be a good thing. He built hospitals so that patients weren’t trundled home in a wheelbarrow after surgery, revolutionized the way doctors were taught, changed the way doctors interacted with patients, and pioneered plastic surgery techniques. He took ‘monsters’ – people with severe burns, disfigurations, even a horn – and worked hard to excoriate the injury/disfigurement and bring out the person within. It might be replacing burned skin that held a head down to the neck (so that the person couldn’t move their head) with their own skin (called a Mütter flap) to ‘unmake’ the monster. The book is filled with drawings of the patients (and the surgical techniques) to bring the challenges Dr. Mütter faced to life. I must say, it’s mesmerizing to be in the world of such genius and creativity (of both Dr. Mütter and Aptowicz).

Though you may (and should) while away hours in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, or on their youtube channel, nothing covers the remarkable life of Dr. Mütter as well as Aptowicz does. She has finely crafted a biography that not only fascinates, but educates. I could NOT put this book down, taking it everywhere with me (yes, even while cooking. You get used to the ‘monsters’ that Mütter treated – and that’s the true impact of this book – the humanization of medicine and so-called monsters). I now talk about Dr. Mütter at every available opportunity, praise Aptowicz’s excellent writing and research skills (and her passion for this story), and highly, highly recommend this book to our Wandering Educators.


We had a chance to catch up with Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, to learn the backstory, inspiration, research, mentors, and the genius of the Mütter Museum. Here’s what she had to say…


Dr. Mütter’s Marvels author Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz


Please tell us about your new book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels...

Dr Mütter's Marvels is a nonfiction book about the life and times of Thomas Dent Mütter, a pre-civil war surgeon who specialized on working on the severely deformed in a time before anesthesia. While Mütter's name may be familiar to some because of his namesake museum, the (in)famous Mütter Museum of Philadelphia, best known for its collection of 19th century medical oddities, his story has never been told before. I spent almost 15 years researching and writing the book, and am so happy to finally be sharing his story with the world.


What inspired you to write this book?

I grew up in Philadelphia, and so the Mütter Museum was as much a part of my childhood as soft pretzels, cheesesteaks and Phillies games. It wasn't until I left Philly to go to college in New York City that I realized what strange and wonderful place the Mütter Museum was. But I also realized that I didn't now much about why the museum was founded -- if Mütter was a person, or a family, or an acronym event. Stranger still, there didn't seem to be much information on the founder of the Mütter Museum. Not even a modern article was written about him, let alone a book.

At this time in my life, I was student at NYU and there was a fellowship competition which awarded several thousand dollars of scholarship money to the student who wrote the best play or screenplay about the life of a scientist or a scientific discovery. As I was paying my own way through college, this competition definitely had my attention, and I decided that I would research the founder of the Mütter Museum to see if there might be a good story there... Little did I know! And a little shy of fifteen years later, Dr. Mütter's Marvels is being released!


I'm all about the research - what was it like, researching your book? What surprised you the most?

There is very little contemporary material on Mütter (meaning contemporary books, articles, etc...) so the vast majority of the research I did on him involved primary source material: letters, speeches, articles, student's notes, and more, to tucked away in various archives across Philadelphia and beyond.

It was a massive amount of material to synthesize, which is why I am so grateful to the University of Pennsylvania for giving me their 2010-2011 ArtsEdge Writer-in-Residency. That allowed me a full year to spend to do the research: track down material, hand-transcribe it into search files in my computer, and interview experts. The book would be a fraction of what it is today if not for their generous support, and the generous and whipsmart guidance of people like Anna Dhody at the Mütter Museum and F. Michael Angelo at the Free Library.


What are the most unusual things you discovered about Dr. Mütter and early American medicine, while researching your book?

I learned so many strange and interesting things through my research. The archivists and librarians were forced to grow accustomed to my gasps, laughs and whistles as I read and transcribed. I am not a quiet reader, it appears!

But perhaps, the strangest things I discovered in my research was a 19th century medical condition known "Phossy Jaw" that was common among girls who worked in matchstick factories. The girls worked long hours in dark, poorly ventilated rooms and would lick their own (unbeknownst to them chemical-coated) fingers often to help in processing so many small slivers of wood. The highly toxic-chemical phosphorus was the active ingredient of matches at the time, and the girls had no idea that they were slowly poisoning themselves. What would start out as simply toothache and painful swollen gums would swiftly evolve into rotting tissue. Soon the girls’ jaws were covered with large weeping abscesses so deep, the bone could be seen. And if the slow disfigurement (with accompanying brain damage and inevitable organ failure) weren’t horrific enough, the chemicals caused the exposed jawbones of these now-deformed girls to glow greenish white in the dark.

I am pretty sure after reading about that for the first time, I left the archive to wash my hands for about 15 minutes straight. Oof!


I'm sure you've spent time at the Mütter Museum. I've watched plenty of youtube videos from the museum - is it creepy there? Or is there an aura of scientific fascination?

The Mütter Museum is the most popular science museum in the country for visitors between the ages of 18 and 35, and the reason is plain. They present material that you want to look at -- that you've been told not to look at, or have only seen in books or websites. At the Mütter Museum, you can take a close look at the skeleton of a conjoined twin, or the body of a woman whose corpse turned to soap, or the limbs deformed by diseases we've eradicated in 21st century America. The specimens draw you in, and then the museum takes it from there -- doing a brilliant and multi-media job educating you about your own body, and the weird things that can happen to it.

Some might find it creepy -- the museum is filled with human remains after all -- but I always see the museum through the lens of the late, great Mütter Museum Director Gretchen Worden who wrote: "While these bodies may be ugly, there is a terrifying beauty in the spirits of those forced to endure these afflictions.”


In your book, you mention the mentorship and friendship of Gretchen Worden and how she worked to open the Museum up to the public. What was her original interest in this field, and how did she work to make the teachings of Dr. Mütter more available?

Gretchen Worden was an absolutely force of a woman -- brilliant, funny and unforgettable. She almost died when she was in her early twenties, but was rescued by medicine and decided from that point on to devote her life to honoring medical science. Like me, she did not come from a science background--she didn't have a degree, or study medicine. Rather, she loved medicine and medical science. And wanted to share that love with everyone she met.

She is absolutely responsible for making the Mütter Museum what it is today: a smart, established and engaging museum. She opened the museum not only to the public, but to writers, artists and photographers. I was still an undergrad when I first wrote my sheepish email to the museum asking if I might have access to their archives to study Mütter -- an inquiry I had only made with the hunch that the story might be good. Gretchen wrote back immediately and welcomed me in, and was elated and supportive of the project every step of the way until her early death in 2004 at the age 54.

Everyone associated with the museum still misses her, but her generous, bright and mischievous spirit lives on. I am lucky to have known her, and was so happy to honor her in my book.


What's up next for you?

Dr. Mütter's Marvels is being released on Sept 4, 2014, and I will be having a party at -- where else? -- the Mütter Museum. After that, I will be hitting the road on an epic book tour, which will have me doing readings at indie bookstores in Philadelphia (PA), New York City (NY), Austin (TX), Columbus (OH), Ann Arbor (MI), Chicago (IL), Omaha (NE), Iowa City (IA), Portland (OR), Seattle (WA) and Vancouver (BC), among others! Please check my website -- www.aptowicz.com -- for more information! I will be bringing some Mütter artifacts on the road, so the readings will be a fun time! 


Is there anything else you'd like to share?

I just want to thank the nonfiction writers David McCullough, Erik Larson, Sarah Vowell, Denise Kiernan, Chuck Klosterman and Kevin Young -- only one of whom I've ever actually met -- for writing books that served as such wonderful inspiration. I always turned to books when I am having low moments, and so many dark moments during the writing of this book were brightened by seeing how these brilliant writers did it.


You can see more photos from the book, in an article by Aptowicz at Smithsonian Magazine

And find Cristin O'Keef Aptowicz on facebook and twitter



Photos courtesy and copyright Dan Winters

Note: we received a review copy of this book from the publisher - thank you!



The backstory of the best biography I've ever read: Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, in an interview with author Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

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