Dr. Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

A well-known quote by British writer L.P. Hartley goes “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of medicine, where advances in technology and technique arrive at dizzying speed. Doctors make breakthroughs that ripple around the world, wiping out diseases and making the most challenging injuries easy to treat and cure on behalf of their patients. These ideas and procedures, such as sanitary instruments, a good bedside manner,  anesthesia, and even a good bedside manner seem commonplace and unworthy of mention today.

It was not always so, of course. There was a time when surgery was done in an open room in front of an audience of medical students for their education. No electricity, sterile instruments, or even painkillers save a few cups of wire were available, and afterwards you were bundled up in your same dirty clothes and hustled into a carriage for a bumpy ride home. The surgeon in question would then turn to his next patient, using the same tools and wearing the same apron, and giving the terrified patient no idea of what the doctor was about to inflict on their body, no matter how they screamed or struggled. And if you were a pregnant woman, things were even worse.

Enter Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a young man who determined that the main goal of a man of medicine should be to treat people needing surgery as equals before, during, and after the procedure. He would calmly and gently explain to you what was to be done at least a week in advance, show the instruments to be used, and advise you what you could do to assist him. During the operation he would work quickly and efficiently, keeping eye contact with you whenever possible, and giving you a reassuring touch on the shoulder if needed. Afterwards he would direct you to a bed for rest and recovery, stopping in several times over the next few days to check up on your progress.

All of which was totally unknown to the practitioners of surgery at the time. Indeed, you could set out your shingle as a doctor without any medical training whatsoever, and medical science in America, as I have mentioned, was far behind the level we enjoy today. You didn’t even need a medical license in Philadelphia until the end of the 19th century. Infectious disease was disputed, medicines were not standardized, bleeding and leeches were heavily promoted, and treating a fever with a cold bath would have been seen as murder.

Mütter tried to change all of it. After studying in France, he arrived in the city of Brotherly Love determined to use what he had learned to become a surgeon, and most importantly to dedicate those skills to helping those considered monsters: people with deformities such as the Widow Sunday, a French woman who grew a long brown horn from her forehead to her chin, or people suffering from severe burns that rendered them incapable of moving their heads and fearful of the public. Mütter prided himself on doing his best to ensure that these individuals would live happier lives through the groundbreaking use of skin grafts and deft cutting; the more terrible the case the greater he dedicated himself to its resolution.

Not content with simply using his abilities to help others, Mütter became a teacher of surgery, instructing others in his methods of cleanliness, empathy and hard work. Where medical teachers of the time generally dictated their wisdom so that the listeners could write and repeat it verbatim, Mütter encouraged dialogue and the asking of questions by his students and offering cadavers and patients with lesser problems for their use in practice. It is to his credit that many of them went on to have prestigious medical careers, applying his ideas to their own fields and patients with great success.

When he felt death was near, Mütter set about ensuring that his vast collection of bodies, specimens and medical equipment would not be lost, but instead would be placed somewhere they could be used to educate and inform future generations as to both the strangeness of the human body and the need for empathy when faced with individuals burdened with those quirks and afflictions as well as hopefully a desire to treat them with the same kindness Mütter himself tried to instill in his students. (I am ashamed to admit that I assumed they were a collection for his personal amusement or a “conversation piece.”)

Cristin Aptowicz has done a stunning job in shining a light on the life and career of this unappreciated pioneer in surgery. Weaving together his life story, the state of medicine at the time and political and professional rivalries with his colleagues, Ms. Aptowicz has done more than simply writing a biography of a remarkable man or educating her readers about the giant strides Mütter made in his field. The crisp, clear words easily make the individuals described understandable and approachable, and the descriptions of the procedures and practices of the time are both vividly grotesque and enthralling.

The book is likewise peppered with portraits of the individuals mentioned in the story, diagrams of Mütters’ patients, and quotations from the good doctor himself, all of which add to the remarkable work that was done by both the subject and author.

After his death at the age of forty-seven from both inherited and chronic illnesses, Dr. L. Beecher Todd lamented the fact that the story of Mütters’ compassionate personality, remarkable skills, dedication to healing and admirable teaching methods might be lost to history if no “able hand” was there to write “the biography of this great and good man” so that his name might become a “household word of American Surgery.” Dr. Todd can rest easy in that regard; Ms. Aptowicz has done as amazing a job in chronicling the life and work of Mütter as the man himself did for his fortunate patients.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.


Ms. Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

This is a TV series based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood featuring the adventures of an unconventional and daring female detective named Phryne Fisher, set in 1920’s Melbourne. I was hooked onto this show by a friend who started watching it while I was pretending to sleep. And I really liked it more than I expected.

I’ve watched some of the Hercule Perot movies, and when I was much younger, Murder She Wrote, but I don’t remember much of those shows at all. Fisher is different, mainly because it faces a lot of the issues of the time while at the same time being very entertaining,

Ms. Fisher is played by Essie Davis, and she fills the role with a charmingly outspoken voice and a mischievous smile. Fisher is a “modern” woman-she drives a car, drinks and carries a gun, as well as flirts and sleeps with whoever she chooses. Today much of this wouldn’t cause TV viewers to bat an eye (well, some conservatives might complain about her sexual appetite, but that’s their issue). In the 1920’s, however, she would have been a troublemaker even if she was a retiring wallflower. Phryne Fisher, however, is anything but shy, and her fearlessly feminist demeanor is amazing to watch.

Conflicts and prejudice beset her and her comrades on all sides: Catholic and Protestants are seen as separate nations, to the point that mixed marriages are approached with great hesitation and dismay, and women are generally treated as second-class citizens, with many characters expressing views common to the time that ladies should not drive or work after marriage, and of course a pregnant woman is instantly unclean or fallen. A healthy dose of contempt for the poor is also present.

Ms. Fisher does her best to overturn these antiquated views by her simple presence and work as a “Lady Detective.” While her list of skills and experiences (nurse, pilot, singer, shooter) sometimes hurts any sense of drama, Davis’ performance and exuberant personality easily smooths over this wrinkle. Her co-stars are likewise fun to watch and play their parts to the hilt, with everyone getting a chance to shine and strut upon the stage.

The only issue I have with the show-which has been renewed for a third season-is an illogical one: I wish there was a bit of variety in the crimes, as opposed to just murder-even if it meant they’d have to change the name of the show.  I’d highly recommend this show to anyone who wants to curl up and enjoy some lovely costumes, cars, people, and murder.

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

It’s interesting and useful to talk to not just the people who have inspired you, but their heroes and role models as well. When it comes to writers, of course, the people whose style you enjoy may not have a living person as their influence, but thankfully books can outlive their creators.

I’m a fan of both Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft, and a book that both have cited as being an excellent read is Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. So, away to Amazon I flew, and thankfully it was available for a very reasonable price. It’s not a long book, only about 128 pages, but it’s a mark of Machen’s skill that he takes the plunge into creepiness right from the get-go, with two intelligent, educated young men talking cheerfully about the drugging and forced lobotomization of a young lady one of them adopted years before for just such a purpose.

The story jumps forward chronologically from there, as one of the aforementioned medical men begins to take note of strange goings-on, educated by an old school friend who is now living penniless on the street. This section has a similar feel to the middle of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where the central horror of the story is revealed. The terror next door is of course present in both, and it’s here onwards that the relationship to Lovecraft can be seen.

Machen couches everything in mystery and vague hints as to what we don’t see, using it to build up a sense of wrongness in the antagonist of the piece, a seemingly beautiful woman named Helen Vaughan , who entertains respectable men at her home and who kill themselves a few days later. Why they die, and indeed how, is central to the story; implications are that what happened in her house was something beyond a scandalous meeting (for Victorian times, anyway) and indeed entirely other.

The film Jaws is of course famous for the killer shark it introduced as a menace (an idea that gave us, many years later, Sharknado, which is more frightening than anything Machen, Lovecraft or King ever wrote), but it’s also well-known for how rarely the titular shark is shown on camera until the end of the movie. The same holds true of Alien, the original trailer of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and hundreds of other films, books and even TV shows where the horror builds the suspense by allowing our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

The Great God Pan follows the same lines and, as I mentioned, clearly influenced Lovecraft, by allowing the reader to play a scene in their mind of Helen’s crimes and the unnameable disgust that fills anyone who sees her, without providing too many details. It’s part and parcel of this approach that it’s almost impossible to spoil this book, as so much in inferred as opposed to being stated outright.

Without sounding too much like an “old codger” the book is slower and more subtle than a lot of the movies and TV that are popular these days, so if you’re expecting visceral, gory terror this may not be your first choice, but for slowly creeping unease Machen’s your man.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.