Dr. Mutter’s Marvels

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Sep 08, 2015 | 384 Pages

Hardcover $27.50

Sep 04, 2014 | 384 Pages

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Sep 04, 2014 | 384 Pages

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Sep 04, 2014 | 384 Pages

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Sep 04, 2014 | 535 Minutes

  • Paperback $17.00

    Sep 08, 2015 | 384 Pages

  • Hardcover $27.50

    Sep 04, 2014 | 384 Pages

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“[Aptowicz’s] poetic eye is exactly what makes Dr. Mütter’s Marvels a marvel itself. . . . With clinical precision, Aptowicz lays bare the facts of Mütter’s colorful, tumultuous life. . . . For a book so immersed in the intimate perspective of its subject, it also brings a broad perspective about everything from the development of modern medicine to women’s issues of the nineteenth century, not to mention how norms of beauty and the definitions of monstrosity have inspired and held us back over the centuries. With Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, Aptowicz keeps a steady hand on her historical scalpel, even as she wields it with a winning flourish.”
—NPR Books

“Ms. Aptowicz rescues Mütter the man from undeserved obscurity, recreating his short life and hard times with wit, energy, and gusto. Her book, like the Mütter Museum, is a reminder that the course of human suffering and the progress of medical science are often messy, complex, and stranger than can be imagined.”
—The Wall Street Journal

“As a huge fan of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, I was excited to get my hands on this rich biography of the real doctor, Thomas Mütter, a nineteenth-century surgeon who treated people with misunderstood conditions and amassed a fascinating collection of medical oddities.”
—USA Today

“Austin-based poet and writer Aptowicz, a woman whose various awards and publications attest to her formidable skill and style when dealing with an impressive diversity of subjects . . . provide[s] such a thorough and compelling account of Mütter’s life and times, his medical innovations and personal fortitude, his enduring legacy, as is to be found between the well-designed covers of this new book.”
—The Austin Chronicle

“Aptowicz does an excellent job of establishing the context of the times and competing personalities. . . .  As Aptowicz clearly shows, [Mütter’s] legacy lives on in many aspects of medicine we now take for granted.”
—The Seattle Times

“Aptowicz has a keen eye for the era’s grotesque details (amputation accidents, for one thing) and an obvious sympathy for Mütter’s passion and legacy.”
—The Boston Globe

“Aptowicz shows Mütter, beloved by his students, evolving from a mischievous, impatient young doctor to an increasingly spiritual man beset by premature illness, and her writing is as full of life as her subject.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is both an insightful portrait of a pioneering surgeon and a reminder of how far medicine has come.”

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is narrative nonfiction at its best. . . . Aptowicz is refreshingly careful with her language, keeping the narrative speculation to a minimum, painting most of her scenery with the weight of her research. She revels in the details, but largely lets the reader draw their own conclusions. The result is an approachable history of a man and of a time period that does exactly what narrative nonfiction should do: answers the questions the reader never realized they had.”
—A.V. Club

“In her deftly crafted narrative, the author provides an absorbing account of the charismatic surgeon’s life and career as well as a vivid look at the medical practices and prejudices of his time. Aptowicz draws nicely on Mütter’s speeches and lectures to reveal the depth of his empathetic philosophies and humanist approach.”
—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“Aptowicz penned a fast-moving and popular history of the early- to mid-nineteenth-century American and Parisian medical worlds, making the most of works by and about Mütter’s contemporaries.”
—Library Journal (Starred Review)

“Aptowicz pens a fascinating and muscular biography of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, splendidly re-creating the doctor’s medical advancements, the age in which he worked, and the conditions and practices he sought to change.”
Library Journal, Wyatt’s World

“Aptowicz approaches her subject with passion and finesse, so that the book reads more like fiction than nonfiction, ensuring that it will appeal to a wide audience.”
—Publishers Weekly, Galley Talk

“Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s ‘true tale of intrigue and innovation at the dawn of modern medicine’ is such a captivating, gripping, and intensely interesting historical tale that even the reader who has mere casual interest in the subject will find themselves devouring Aptowicz’s text in a matter of days, if not hours.”
—Fanboy Comics

“Ms. Aptowicz rescues Mütter the man from undeserved obscurity, recreating his short life and hard times with wit, energy, and gusto. Her book, like the Mütter Museum, is a reminder that the course of human suffering and the progress of medical science are often messy, complex, and stranger than can be imagined.”
Dr. John J. Ross, author of Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: Diagnosing the Medical Groans and Last Gasps of Ten Great Writers

“An extraordinary, moving, and humbling story about a remarkable and compassionate surgeon who changed the face of medicine forever. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz immerses us in the strange world of Dr. Thomas Mütter and unfolds the tale of his pioneering approach to surgery with verve, wit, and sensitivity. We are all of us the richer for Dr. Mütter’s visionary work and the legacy he left us in the shape of one of the world’s most beguiling museums.”
Wendy Moore, author of The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery


Author Q&A

A Conversation with Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz:

How did you first learn about Thomas Mütter, and what inspired you to write about him?
COA: Growing up in Philadelphia, the Mütter Museum was a part of my childhood, but it wasn’t until after I moved to New York City for college and was frequently asked about by curious non-Philadelphians that I realized while I knew about the museum’s strange collection of unusual medical specimens, I didn’t know much about how it came to be. I didn’t know if Mütter was the name of a man, or family, or even an acronym. When I decided to research this story in the hopes of securing an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship to help offset the costs of my college education, I was shocked and thrilled to uncover this incredible story which had largely been untold. Almost fifteen years after I first walked into the Mütter Museum archive to do my earliest research on Mütter, I am so excited to finally be sharing Mütter’s life and work in this book.

Some of the material you share is shocking and could be unsettling for someone with a weak stomach. Did you ever feel like Mütter’s story was too difficult to tell?
COA: The Mütter Museum is the most popular science museum in American for people between the ages of 18 and 35, and one of the reasons is because they used the drama and shock of the unusual specimens within their collection to draw attention to, and thus teaching visitors about, the science of our bodies. I tried my best to use that philosophy when writing the book. Humans have a natural curiosity about the limits and extremes about the human body, and I tried to use that natural curiosity as a tool to encourage people to better understand and empathize with the patients, doctors and general citizens of mid-19th century America.

Has Mütter’s rivalry with Meigs been documented before or was it something that you uncovered in your research?
COA: As one of the best known and most prominent obstetricians in American during this lifetime, Meigs had numerous rivalries with various doctors. His best know and most public rivalry was the one he had with Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, which is spotlighted in the book. But the Mutter and Meigs rivalry is not one generally known. Jefferson Medical College was very proud of its “Famous Faculty of ‘41” and likely took pains to hide any discord from the general public. However, the Jefferson Medical College meeting minutes I uncovered in my research told a very different story!

How and when did Jefferson Medical College lose its preeminent position in the United States?
COA: During the earliest parts of Mütter’s career as a physician, there was not a lot of transparency between doctor and patient. Ill or injured people were to follow their doctor’s orders without question. This was dynamic to maintain—especially with surgical patients—as treatments and recovery were often lengthy and painful. I mention this because people often ask about the perceived stubbornness of Philadelphia doctors during Mütter’s career who seemed not only unwilling to support the medical innovations which Mütter embraced, but sometimes even actively spoke against them. That sense of being unquestionably right was an engrained part of what it meant to be a doctor in the early 19th century, and it was the continuation of that attitude—and thus, the resistance to embracing innovation—that caused Philadelphia to lose its place as being the “Medical Athens of America” to cities like Boston and New York City.
What are some of your favorite exhibits on display in the Mütter Museum?
COA: My favorite exhibits are the ones that showcase a singular passion of one particular doctor. For instance, the famous Hyrtle Skull collection—a gathering of 139 skulls from around the world—was the passion project for Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtle (1810-1894) who wanted to counter the claims that one could determine intelligence, personality and racial differences purely by examining skull features. To serve this vision, he collected skulls from around the world, and neatly inscribed the person’s age, place of origin and cause of death in ink onto the bone of the skull. This project took years to complete, but in the end proved his theory. There are numerous examples of this sort of passion within the Mütter Museum’s collection, and I find them endlessly fascinating.

Mütter pioneered many innovations in plastic surgery, but primarily to help those who were horribly disfigured lead normal lives. Do you think he would support the practice of plastic surgery on people who want to look younger or more attractive?
COA: I would hate to speculate on that, but at the very least I think he would be impressed that surgical techniques—and trust between surgeon and patient—had advanced enough that such a thing was possible!

You write that Mütter’s marriage to Mary Alsop was childless. Do you know why this might have been the case?
COA: This was a question that I tried to have answered in my research, but no answer—definitive or speculative—was to be found.
Before you began writing nonfiction, you were known for your poetry and spoken word performances. How difficult was it to switch gears and write a narrative history?
COA: Writing poetry and performing it was great training for writing a longer narrative nonfiction book. The poetry I write is largely autobiographical, and poetry has trained me to look at my life with a detailed eye. My favorite types of poems are ones that look a situation or moment, and tease out a deeper or more complicated meaning from it. This was a helpful skill to have when write Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, but looking at the hard facts of Mütter’s life with a “poet’s eye” helped me to organize and shape a story that I hope is compelling and novel-like, and makes the reader feel a part of Mütter’s world, instead merely reading about it!
What are you working on now?
COA: I am working on another nonfiction book and another poetry collection. You know how the fact that if a shark ever stops swimming, he dies? That’s how I am with writing! 

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