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The P.T. Barnum of the Surgery Room

posted by: October 15, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for Dr. Mutter's MarvelsBrilliant, eccentric, odd, flamboyant and influential are all words that have been used to describe Thomas Dent Mütter, a trailblazing plastic surgeon from Philadelphia. In Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz details the fascinating story of this unique man who made so many critical contributions to modern medicine and whose legacy lives on today.

 

Dr. Mütter began his career as a surgeon and teacher at Jefferson College of Medicine in the middle of the 19th century at a time when anesthesia was not used during surgery and sterilization was haphazard at best. Mütter was determined to remedy those situations while focusing on using his talents to aid the physically deformed. As an innovator of plastic surgery techniques, he was also an expert on burns and cleft palates. Detailed accounts of actual surgeries performed by Mütter are peppered throughout the book and add to the compelling narrative. A character outside the operating room, Mütter wore colorful silk suits and cavalierly added an umlaut to his name. He was bitterly disliked by rivals who eschewed his ideas, but beloved by students who welcomed his interactive approach to lectures.   

 

Sadly, the charismatic and talented Mütter died at 48, but through his speeches and lectures Aptowicz is able to reveal the complexity of Mütter’s character, his compassion and the lasting impact he had on the medical profession. In his lifetime, Mütter amassed a personal collection of almost 2,000 unique medical items, including models, illustrations and preserved anomalies. Among the objects he collected were skulls from around the world. Mütter donated his entire collection of medical curiosities to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and The Mütter Museum opened in 1863. The Museum now boasts a collection of more than 25,000 items which includes sections of Albert Einstein’s brain and the tumor from Grover Cleveland’s jaw.


 
 

Revised: October 15, 2014