Dr. Mutter's Marvels


Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz




Date Reviewed:

January 2, 2016

he complete title of this book is Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. I am not quite sure what the "Intrigue" mentioned in the title is referring to, there is no cloak and dagger, no secrets, no betrayals. However, the subject matter itself is intriguing. This non-fiction book is a biography of Thomas Dent Mütter, a pioneering physician in Philadelphia in the mid-nineteenth century. His major achievement was successfully demonstrating the use of ether as an anesthesic during surgery - prior to this innovation, surgery was performed while the patient screamed with pain and was forcefully restrained as such violent operations as amputation. Surgeons operated as swiftly as possible to end the agony as quickly as possible; they were often drenched with gore by the time the procedure was complete. Mütter did not discover the anesthesic properties of ether, but he used his prestigious positionas head surgeon at the Philadelphia Jefferson Medical College to advance the use of ether into common surgical practice.

Mütter's other innovations include opening a hospital for patients - instead of sending the patient home immediately after surgery, Mütter had a ward built where patients could convalesce, rather than riding home in a bouncing horse drawn wagon. Mütter also spent considerable effort preparing his patients before the surgery, so relax them and keep them informed of how each gruesome step would proceed. After an operation, Mütter would frequently check in with the recovering patient. Today, we expect our doctor to express sympathy and concern, to communicate directly with us, but this type of interaction was not standard practice in the nineteenth century.

Mütter was a leader in plastic surgery, using his knife to remove and repair horrible physical deformities. (Apparently it was called plastic surgery even though plastic had not yet been invented, the first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt.) In the nineteenth century, people with cleft palates, tumors or horrible scars from burns, had no options but to endure their deformity. Mütter was able to develope procedures that would restore their looks to something approaching normalcy.

While Mütter was at Philadelphia, the first teaching hospital was opened, so that medical students could see how actual care and procedures could be achieved.

Mütter died at the young age of 48, after a long illness. The book never identifies what disease consumed him, though it mentioned that he would cough up blood and had trouble with his lungs. Perhaps it was tuberculosis?

I think the more interesting parts of this book are the descriptions of medical science at the time - especially the debates about how infectious diseases could be spread. At one point, the author lists all the plagues that sweep through Philadelphia over a span of a few years, and it was depressing how many different ways people died due to lack of vaccines, antibiotics or common sanitation.