Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale?

Dr Mutters MarvelsCristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, begins with this quote from 1859: “Thomas Dent Mütter is dead and the world will forget him.”

The eulogist, Philadelphia surgeon Richard J. Levis, feared that Dr. Mütter’s extraordinary contributions to surgical practice, medical training, and patient care would be lost to history. However, even a century and a half later, Dr. Mütter remains relevant, largely due his collection of medical specimens housed in a museum bearing his name: The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

In Dr. Mütter’s Marvels (excerpt available here), Aptowicz brings a version of this extraordinary man to life, pulling from a variety of primary and secondary sources to describe how he furthered the medical field, groomed the next generation of physicians, and improved the quality of life for people otherwise doomed to be perceived as “monsters.” Dr. Mütter was an early practitioner of plastic surgery—a highly prestigious and growing field today—and even developed the Mütter Flap, a procedure surgeons still use to repair facial burns.

In Mütter’s candlelit era, women, the heavily clad victims of repressive gender norms, were particularly susceptible to serious burn injuries. As Aptowicz writes:

To understand how these ‘monsters’ were created, it is important to understand how women were forced to dress at this time: an imposed modesty that could literally kill them. Every morning, women began the process of dressing themselves for the day in the era’s notoriously restrictive clothing. Layer upon layers of cotton, wool, and silk… [Chapter 13]

I most appreciated Aptowicz’s comments about the overt gender discrimination endemic to mid-19th Century America. She does not glorify the time period; however, I do wonder about the extent to which her work is more an example of hagiography than biography, given that she rarely has a critical word for her subject, Dr. Mütter.

I also wonder to what extent this compelling read is truth versus fiction. Aptowicz provides us with detailed endnotes (for which I am grateful!), and explains that the descriptions of Mütter’s surgeries come from his published works. Did he write as much about his failures as he did about his successes? I don’t know, but Aptowciz appears to take Mutter’s descriptions at face value.

Aptowicz claims, “I mined the extensive research seen in these endnotes to draw the best possible conclusions…” Still, some of her descriptions of Mütter’s successes seem exaggerated, particularly considering how hard it is for even modern medicine to address the same types of injuries.

Here are just two examples:

  1. In retelling the story of Nathaniel Dickey, a twenty-five-year old Philadelphian who went to Dr. Mütter because his face was split down the middle, Aptowicz describes the brutal surgery, done in front of an audience and without anesthesia, and then writes: “With one tender hand cupping the back of his exhausted patient’s head, [Dr. Mütter] held the mirror in front of Nathaniel’s new and handsome face. Mütter smiled. And Nathaniel Dickey, disobeying doctor’s orders this one time, smiled back.” [Chapter 5; see the link to the excerpt, above]

    She lists the source as “Liston, Lectures on the Operations of Surgery,” a 1840s textbook, for which Mütter provided an additional 200+ pages of anecdotes. Even if the textbook described Dickey’s case this way, it is hard to believe what Mütter saw was really a smile, and not a grimace (as grateful for the procedure as Dickey may have been).
  2. In 1846-47, Jefferson Medical College treated 796 patients with over half of them receiving surgeries. Aptowicz writes, “Of the 796 patients… the college recorded among them only three deaths—a stunningly small number.” I’d say it’s more than just a stunning number. I’d say it’s an incredible one, considering that it predates germ theory and advances in sanitation and medical technology. It’s a far lower complication/death rate than Jefferson, still a well-regarded hospital, currently reports for various types of treatments.

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is an entertaining read, but I’m not sure I would classify it as non-fiction.

*Thank you to Shannon from River City Reading for bringing this book to my attention. She concludes, “Aptowicz paints an absolutely fascinating portrait of a man who should be remembered for much more than the medical collections he left behind.”



  1. My husband looked over my shoulder while I was reading your blog and thought I was reading more about my upcoming surgery. He wasn’t very happy with me. Haha

    This does sound like an interesting book. I found your observations about the accuracy interesting to read as well.

    1. I read way too much medical literature (and less prestigious medical commentary) on the internet! My husband is often telling me to stop. I hope that your upcoming surgery goes well. I know how nerve-racking it must be for you and your family. Good luck!

    1. Yeah, this book might not be the best option for you! It’s interesting, though. If you’re able to endure detailed descriptions of mid-19th Century surgical practice, I recommend it!

  2. Glad to see you ended up reading this one! You definitely pointed out a few interesting points. It seems as nonfiction has moved from academia into the mainstream the line between strict and narrative/literary nonfiction has started to blur. I don’t have any problem classifying this as narrative nonfiction, which tends to be what I gravitate toward, but I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the difference between the two since reading this post http://anneboydrioux.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/challenge-to-a-woman-writers-credibility/ Thanks for giving me a little more to turn over!

    1. Thanks again for recommending it! For me, this book still doesn’t quite fall into the creative nonfiction category, which is where I classify books like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. In my opinion, creative nonfiction uses literary techniques to bring nonfiction subjects to life while maintaining factual accuracy. I really appreciated Aptowicz’s meticulous endnotes–her book is certainly based on a kernel of truth–but so much of it seems like it comes directly from her imagination. Maybe there are degrees of creative nonfiction–and her book would fall somewhere on that continuum closer to the “creative” side–but I question whether her book should’ve had a subtitle claiming it is a “true tale.”

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