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

Written by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Review by Bethany Latham

There’s a museum in Philadelphia. Past its pristine marble foyer, you’ll discover conjoined twins floating in formaldehyde, wax models of terrible disease, the world’s largest colon, books beautifully bound…in human skin. The Mütter Museum’s medical collections, equal parts fascinating and horrifying, are the legacy of a unique individual: Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter.

Aptowicz’s book focuses on Mütter’s career in Philadelphia and the state of medicine during the 1830s-1850s. It features an entertaining, easily readable style, thoroughly researched, with copious illustrations. Mütter emerges, through his own words and those of his friends, students, and rivals, as an innovator, a tirelessly amiable man devoted to his work…and stylish dressing. Chair of surgery at the nation’s most prestigious college of medicine when he was barely thirty and dubbed the P.T. Barnum of the surgical theatre, his skill and showmanship were undeniable. But it was his attitude towards his patients – namely one of compassion – and his embracing of new technologies (e.g. anesthetization and cleanliness to fight infection) that set him apart from his peers. Aptowicz clearly admires her subject, and it shows in the book’s narrative style and effusive prose. This work is an absorbing look at a thoroughly engaging man, a terrifying state of medicine, and how, despite his short life, Mütter left a legacy which benefits us all.