Dr. Mütter's Marvels

O'Keefe, Cristin

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction
Secondary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: Jan-25-2016


Those who are familiar with the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, best known for its anatomical oddities, may have wondered about the institution’s namesake.  The author of this book, a poet and native of Philadelphia, endeavors to place Thomas Dent Mütter within the context of 19th-century American medicine.  

We learn here that notwithstanding being “medicated” with wine, surgical patients emitted such agonized screams that observers were known to vomit and pass out in their seats. We learn that Philadelphia was a cesspool of infectious disease for which there was no effective treatment.  We learn too of the rivalry (including behavior that would be considered unprofessional today) between the well-established school of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Mütter’s alma mater) and upstart Jefferson (whose faculty Mütter would join).  

In an era before the germ theory of disease became widely accepted, there was of course no concept of sterile technique.  To suggest that a surgeon should wash his hands was to imply he was not a gentleman because “all gentlemen were clean” (page 104).  Resistance to anesthesia was based not so much on concerns about potential danger but on the notion, when it came to obstetrics, that pain was a punishment for the sins of Eve.  Doctors could be downright sadistic to their patients, to the point of beating them like livestock.  That there was no concept of surgical aftercare meant that patients would be sent home immediately following an amputation. Victims of grotesque tumors and disfiguring accidents were considered “monsters” who lived lives of unimaginable misery.  

Enter Mütter, whose importation of plastic surgery from Paris to America brought hope to thousands of incurables.  He had an intuitive sense of the role of cleanliness in reducing morbidity and mortality.  He was a passionate advocate for anesthesia when it was seen as little more than a fad.  He abandoned traditional teaching methods that held a professor should be distant and unapproachable, and became beloved by generations of Jefferson students.  

In short, Mütter emerges as not just a likeable guy, but the forerunner of a whole new concept of what a good doctor should be, a sort of cross between P.T. Barnum and Mother Teresa.    


A disclaimer is in order: this is not a serious scholarly work.  The author makes up for a lack of primary sources about Mütter’s life by filling in the blanks from her vivid imagination.  The result, although promoted as biography, reads like historical fiction.  However, it is thoroughly engaging and a good read.  It might be enjoyed by, say, someone who is considering studying medicine.   

Be forewarned this is not a guide to the Mütter Museum.  We learn about Mütter’s quest to found a museum, but the collection itself is referred to almost in passing.  This may prove disappointing to some readers, although that information can be found elsewhere.

The best thing about this book may be the terrific illustrations (although some have been shrunk to the point of indecipherability).  These include woodcuts of Mütter’s surgical procedures from the author’s personal collection, Civil War material, early photographs of medical students from Jefferson’s archives, engravings and paintings.  Some readers may feel that Dr. Mütter’s Marvels is worth having for these alone.


Penguin Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count


Secondary Source