Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine

drmuttersmarvelsCristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Gotham Books ($27.50)

Although Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1859) was a pioneer of plastic surgery for accident victims, general readers will probably be more familiar with his Philadelphian museum of medical oddities. The mention of “marvels” in the title implies a focus on this famous collection, but this biography of Mütter only touches on the creation of his museum in the final few chapters. Although not a scholarly work per se, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is well-researched, contextualizing its subject’s life and career in the milieu of early modern medicine (a fascinating, if gruesome, era). And Mütter’s is a great American success story: impoverished orphan grows up to revolutionize his field and win the adoration of his colleagues, all through hard work, ingenuity, and a plucky good nature. Our hero even has a foil: the almost comically retrograde Dr. Charles Meigs, who clashes with Mütter in a series of dramatic showdowns. The book is unafraid to explore the grislier aspects of life in the early 19th century: special attention is given to the suffering of women, who died from being exposed to unsterilized tools during childbirth (Mütter, of course, was an early promoter of antiseptic working conditions) and were horribly maimed in kitchen fires. With all this going on, the book barely has time to discuss the “marvels” in Mütter’s eponymous museum; given the engaging nature of this work, readers will clamor for Aptowicz to write a companion volume discussing the collection in a similar context.

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