Author discusses life of medical innovator

September 17, 2015


For The News-Letter

On Tuesday, Sept. 17, Barnes & Noble hosted a talk by New York Times Best Selling poet and author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. Aptowicz visited Baltimore as part of a book tour following the paperback release of her highly regarded non-fiction piece, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels. The author also spoke on WYPR’s Midday with Dan Rodericks.

The book’s subject, a 19th century plastic surgeon named Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, is most well-known as the namesake for Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which holds an extensive variety of medical oddities and equipment.

Aptowicz’s book moves beyond the name chiseled into stone and delves further into the life of the doctor who made significant advances in the field of medicine throughout his lifetime.

Aptowicz’s talk began with a discussion of Mütter’s early years during which he transitioned from an orphaned young man to a fashionable and successful adult. The author then spoke of the decrepit state of Philadelphia during the Industrial Revolution, the city in which Mütter lived and worked, and the setting for this biography.

As a result of industrial advancements, many citizens of Philadelphia were the victims of horrid physical ailments and deformities. The author discussed these in some depth, even showing period diagrams and drawings. It was in this city that Dr. Mütter sought his fortune through the field of surgery, a profession which Aptowicz described as ideal for those from more humble backgrounds.

Mütter left Philadelphia to seek an education in France where, during his studies, he discovered an interest in plastic surgery.

According to Aptowicz, the field of plastic surgery was an uncommon practice as a result of its voluntary nature, especially considering the fact that during the first half of the 19th century, anesthetics were nearly non-existent.

Upon graduating medical school, Mütter left France and returned to the United States where he was reviled by his counterparts for his flamboyant dress and demeanor. Mütter was nonetheless offered a position at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

Aptowicz provided those who attended the event with several examples of the practices and customs of a 19th century doctor, describing scenes of public surgeries and insufficient sanitary practices. The audience cringed in response to the author’s vivid descriptions of archaic medical procedures and chuckled at Aptowicz’s clever commentary on the subject.

In addition, Mütter was the first doctor in Philadelphia to use anesthesia during surgery.

The author went on to discuss Mütter’s most tangible legacy: the museum dedicated to him in his hometown. Later in life, the doctor began to suffer from gout, a severe condition that was displayed in Aptowicz’s images of two gout-stricken severed and preserved hands. In his final years, Mütter realized that his extensive collection of medical “monstrosities” would be split by those who proceeded him after he passed away. Aptowicz described Mütter’s efforts to consolidate and house his medical belongings, which eventually found a home in Philadelphia.

This would later be named the Mütter Museum, and its collection would grow overtime with the addition of new exhibits, ranging from models with deformed skeletons to bizarre medical tools. The museum seems to have had a great impact on the author, who described the interest she had in its exhibits as a child at the opening of the talk.

Aptowicz’s relationship with Thomas Dent Mütter is not limited to her non-fiction biography of the doctor. As a undergraduate at New York University she wrote a screenplay centered around Dr. Mütter’s life and career.

Despite her substantial interest in the subject, Aptowicz said that she was at first intimidated by the process of writing a biography of the doctor due to complex nature of medicine and its history.

The author demonstrated a breadth of knowledge during the talk, managing to capture the audience’s attention with a humorous and informative presentation on a man whom she portrayed as driven and invested in the advancement of medical science. Aptowicz closed her lecture to applause from the audience and prepared to move onto the next stop in her tour, Washington, D.C.

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