After reading a mystery story about a cabinet of curiosities, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, was a good next nonfiction read. This book is by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, and not only is it a fascinating tale, but the book is very artistically designed.
Thomas Dent Mütter was a famous surgeon in Philadelphia, 1811-1859, at a time when surgery and medicine were a free-for-all. One didn’t have to have a medical license to practice, and surgery itself was positively barbaric compared to today. Mutter, who later added the umlaut affectation to his name, was quite a character, brilliant to his students, compassionate to his patients, and a true innovator, especially in the field of plastic surgery. He often worked on the poor unfortunates whose defects and deformities no one else would touch. O’Keefe Aptowicz visited his famous museum in Philadelphia as a child and became so fascinated by him that she ended up researching his life and writing this story.
What an amazing story it was too read! All the infighting between doctors and surgeons and all out in public, the dramatic and bombastic medical lectures, the competition between the University of Philadelphia (America’s first medical school) and Jefferson Medical College, the weirdness of Mütter, who often wore silk suits to surgery, and his colleagues like Charles D. Meigs, the differences in experience from Paris to Philadelphia, the amazing surgeries and cases–this story would make an awesome TV show. Meigs could even be the villain in the piece, but he’s more to be pitied than anything else. Sometimes time passes people by, sometimes people don’t change with the times when really they should.
Doctors and surgeons are not gods; neither is the medical industry infallible. In the early 1800s, perhaps the mistakes made in medicine can be excused somewhat, as everything was just getting started with regulating and licensing and all that, but in many ways doctors and medicine have not changed. Even today there are big controversies and differences of opinions in the field, and as it was then, the doctors that don’t fit the industry narrative are silenced as much as possible. It’s sad that more aren’t willing to let all opinions be heard, but that’s they way it so often is with many things. That Mütter made any change is remarkable, and it seems to me he was blessed by God in this, but also that God had him born at the right time, a time when people were willing to change and to consider change. Near the end of his life, America went through a Civil War over slavery, that’s how much things were changing. Today, it’s tempting to think we’ve figured things out medically, but it wasn’t so long ago that most did not know or did not believe that infection and disease could be transmitted by not washing ones hands. Meigs was one such surgeon and refused to change. How many died by his hand when they didn’t need to? It’s a sobering thought. How many die today at the hands of medical professionals who refuse to looks at standards of care that are doing just the opposite for their patients? Fortunately, there are always some, like Mütter, who are true forward thinkers, people with genuine smarts and common sense.
The most striking aspect to me about Mütter was his compassion for the patients–the time he took to get them used to what would happen in the surgery in a time when the only anesthesia was wine, the quickness with which he performed his cutting and stitching, and his brilliant idea of installing aftercare. He really brought the “care” into medical care. It’s mind boggling now to think that patients were given wine and held down for a surgery or amputation and forced to go through with he surgery no matter what, then dumped into a bumpy carriage to recover at home, all performed in front of hundreds of medical students. Compassionate care is more or less standard in America today, though we still have a long ways to go, too. So, so many people are sick today, especially with things like cancer and chronic illness, that it’s too easy to start treating patients like numbers. That’s what I see with vaccines and COVID, the patients are numbers and everyone wants a part of the staggering amounts of money being thrown in at both things. There are doctors who very clearly disagree with the narrative, who have tried explaining that COVID is fairly easy to treat, that it’s not the worst thing since the Black Plague, and that for most a vaccine isn’t even necessary. A step beyond that, there thankfully are many medical professionals also decrying the hasty use of the COVID experimental vaccines, calling attention to the concerning reactions and side effects. As in Mütter’s day, they are purposefully being drowned out, but not for long, I think, for the truth does will out.
Take anesthesia, a new innovation in Mütter’s time, and something that actually bypassed the need for his brand of surgery preparation, which was to meet for weeks with he patient touching and massaging the area to be cut open, so that they wouldn’t be afraid when the surgery finally happened. Instead of being angry about it, however, Mütter embraced the technology, knowing that if it was better for the patient, it would be better for the surgeons too. He also stressed that for the doctor and surgeon, a surgery should be a last and best step–most all other avenues should be tried first. This is a big way we fail today. Surgeries are recommended today so often as to make them routine. Perhaps this should not be. Perhaps there are other ways and better ways to heal. I think of the experience people have had changing their diet, going on keto or carnivore. Much of their inflammation and distress disappears. The truth is getting out there, little by little, especially as people perhaps now have less money to spend on expensive surgeries, but it’s still only a precious few doctors that really embrace these cheaper means.
This story is a great read and of course whatever one’s experience in the medical field, different aspects will resonate more keenly. What I got out of it, would not be what you get out of it. What a fun trip it would be to go to Philadelphia someday and see Mütter’s museum and all of the curiosities collected there. It is amazing that even today we really don’t know sometimes what causes odd growths and deformities on a person. God’s creation is complex and we have a long way to go.