Book: Dr. Mütter’s Marvels

While we were at work on the third issue of Psychopomp Magazine, both Sequoia and I were in Philadelphia. I grew up in the area, and my family still lives in the Delaware Valley. However, it wasn’t until this past January that I took my first ever trip to the Mütter Museum. Presented in the style of a Victorian era cabinet of curiosities, the Mütter is home to a vast collection of medical oddities in the forms of specimens, models, and medical equipment. Think fetuses in jars, slides of Einstein’s brain, thmuttere world’s largest colon, and a “Soap Lady.” It all started in the 19th century with Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter’s donations to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Mütter was determined to reform medicine, and he began his collection in an effort to better understand the many peculiarities of the human body.

It sounded right up our alley. We had to check it out. The place is fascinating, and I certainly recommend visiting. One of my favorite exhibits–though it was in some ways one of the simplest–was called Grimm’s Anatomy. This exhibit drew connections between the fantastical bodies within fairy tales and their real life counterparts. For example: Hansel’s finger, Rapunzel’s hair, and Cinderella’s “lotus feet.”

This week, Dr. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Gotham Books) was released. Aptowicz spent 15 years writing and researching this biography, which she referred to as “narrative nonfiction” in her interview yesterday morning on Philadelphia’s Preston and Steve Show. Aptowicz certainly seems to take liberties, blending history and imagination to tell the story of Thomas Dent Mütter, and the book straddles genres. Despite being considered nonfiction, it certainly reads, at times, like a novel. For instance, it describes Mütter’s acquisition of the face model of Madame Dimanche (a Frenchwoman who had a cutaneous horn growing from her forehead), opening in-scene with the lines, “Even in the middle of the ocean, Mütter could not get her out of his mind. He excused himself from dinner, stopped well-meaning conversationalists mid-sentence, and rushed down to his sleeping quarters just to hold her face in his hands.” If you are interested in learning about the history of surgery, medicine, and the mysteries of the human body, this may be one to add to your reading list.