Sunday, July 20, 2014
Book Review: Dr. Mütter's Marvels by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
The Goodreads summary:
A mesmerizing biography of the brilliant and eccentric medical innovator who revolutionized American surgery and founded the country’s most famous museum of medical oddities
Imagine undergoing an operation without anesthesia performed by a surgeon who refuses to sterilize his tools—or even wash his hands. This was the world of medicine when Thomas Dent Mütter began his trailblazing career as a plastic surgeon in Philadelphia during the middle of the nineteenth century.
Although he died at just forty-eight, Mütter was an audacious medical innovator who pioneered the use of ether as anesthesia, the sterilization of surgical tools, and a compassion-based vision for helping the severely deformed, which clashed spectacularly with the sentiments of his time.
Brilliant, outspoken, and brazenly handsome, Mütter was flamboyant in every aspect of his life. He wore pink silk suits to perform surgery, added an umlaut to his last name just because he could, and amassed an immense collection of medical oddities that would later form the basis of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.
Disclaimer: I received a free ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway.
This is very good narrative non-fiction.
Before my copy arrived, I read a couple of the negative reviews posted on Goodreads, and I was concerned. However, now that I have read Aptowicz's book, I find I disagree with most of what these negative reviews say.
I really enjoy narrative non-fiction done right. But that is what this is: narrative. If you want only historical facts presented textbook-style (which I also enjoy, by the way), then you might not like this book. But if you enjoyed books such as Larson's The Devil In The White City or Johnson's The Ghost Map, then Dr. Mutter's Marvels is probably a good choice.
This book tells the story of a remarkable genius who is not well known outside of Philadelphia and/or the medical community. Thomas Dent Mütter was fabulous, flamboyant, controversial, and way ahead of his time in the field of plastic surgery -- and also in progressive ideas such as cleanliness, treating patients with respect, and using ether to make surgeries easier for both patients and doctors.
I was pleased with the amount of notes available for me to check the research, as I am always suspicious of authors' claims when notes and references are not included. Those who wish to check facts or read more will find that Aptowicz has included plentiful resources. As I had an ARC, the fact that the index was not yet in the book disappointed me, but I'm quite sure that the "real" book will not have that problem.
So why did I give this four stars instead of five? Well, the author does jump around quite a bit, taking several sections of this chronological narrative out of order in a way that can be rather confusing. She's also a bit inconsistent with her treatment of other doctors/medical researchers at the time. Some of them get plenty of coverage, but others are not even named when she discusses the effects of their discoveries on Mütter and his work. She also praises the medical community in Paris at the time but ignores the tremendous influence of the medical world in Edinburgh -- including the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, which had been in existence for over 100 years before Mütter got his "original" idea of creating a similar museum. I have a hard time believing that Mütter would have heard NOTHING of the medical advancements in Scotland when he was supposedly so very influenced by Europeans and the community in Paris. Surely the Europeans would have been discussing the hot topics of the day from the medical communities in other large cities! But this is ignored in the book, except for one brief mention of Edinburgh. Thus, I wonder about the thoroughness of some parts of the research, however much I enjoyed -- and I DID enjoy -- the research which is included.
But on the whole, I found this to be a very good and fascinating read. I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in American history, medical history, women's history (there is must on women's health here), or general gruesomeness (surgery required a very strong stomach).