Aptowicz’s well-researched and, even more importantly, well-written biography of Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter has all the excitement of a true thriller. Clearly entranced by her subject. Aptowicz introduces us to a dazzling innovator in the field of medicine, who not only saved countless lives with his introduction into the U.S. of the virtually non-existent field of “radical surgery” (what we would later call plastic surgery,) but who fought against great odds to force the adoption of basic sanitary measures such as hand-washing, sanitized tools and work areas, and post-operative care. He was also an early pioneer in the use of anaesthesia, which at the time was viewed as “a passing novelty” and “humbug” by many in the medical profession of his day. Mutter’s consideration of the patient’s needs before, during and after surgery lay at the core of his teaching, thereby helping to forge a cadre of doctors whose sworn allegiance to the Hippocratic Oath was finally embraced.
Mutter was born in 1881, lost his brother, parents, and grandmother to disease all before the age of eight, and was taken into the home of a distant but wealthy relative who showed little interest in the sickly boy except to dutifully provide him with room, board and schooling. Mutter excelled in his studies, used charm, wit, intelligence and a goodly dose of ambition to plow his way through college and medical school, earned a medical degree at age 20, spent a year studying with some of the most highly respected and innovative surgeons of Europe, and came back to disease-ridden Philadelphia to join the newly-formed Jefferson Medical College as one of its youngest professors.
At the time, virtually anyone calling himself a doctor was allowed to practice—no licenses were required in Philadelphia until nearly the end of the 19th century!—and the terrible mortality rates, the abusive experimentation in the name of practicing medicine, the disregard for the human sensibilities of the sick were all anathema to a man who had witnessed these horrors firsthand and from an early age.
Mutter was a natural lecturer, a born showman, a brilliant surgeon and a humanitarian, who nonetheless had to battle constantly for his principles against the Neanderthals of the medical world in his day. His health, never good in the best of times, suffered a dramatic decline just as his rise in his profession became assured, and his death at the young age of 47 was a terrible blow to the field of medicine, and to humanity. He bequeathed his collection of medical oddities and specimens to the college where he taught until the end, and it is still there to be visited today.
Aptowicz has given us an inspiring tale which not only resurrects an American hero, but which offers the reader quite an education on how recently we have come to benefit from the breakthroughs of modern medicine that we all come to expect today. One can only wonder how many other unsung heroes are out there?