It’s hard to think that there used to be a day when people would willingly go into surgery without anesthesia of any kind…without sterile procedures in place…and without a formally trained doctor. But that’s just a taste of what people faced in the 19th century, when Thomas Dent Mutter practiced medicine. And the marvels that form part of his legacy are more than tangible curiosities in a cabinet.
Dr. Mutter was born into a loving family, but he lost both his parents at a young age. He also suffered from a chronic condition his entire life. But despite the setbacks life presented him, Thomas Mutter studied medicine and became a well-respected surgeon. And what I like best about him is the compassion he showed his patients, treating them as people, not mysteries to be solved. He revolutionized the way patients were treated by preparing them physically and mentally for days before surgery, and providing aftercare, rather than sending patients home within hours of experiencing the physical and mental trauma of surgery in the 1800’s. His ideas on hygiene, in a time when germ theory was in its infancy, were ahead of their time. He also was one of the first doctors to use anesthetic on his patients, something that wasn’t as popular as you might think among the medical community at the time.
Mutter’s contributions to medicine also include the eponymous Mutter flap surgery, a form of skin grafting used to treat the deformities of burn victims, that is still used today. And in the mid 1800’s, there were a lot of burn victims, especially women, who wore flammable clothing while cooking over open flames. And such trauma often meant a lifetime of exile and shame for people who were shunned by society for their deformities.
What’s great about this book is that not only is Mutter himself an interesting person, but he lived in a strange and perplexing time. Aptowicz’s narrative of 19th century medicine was the stuff of nightmares. This was a time when doctors assisted surgeons by holding the limbs of the patient, so he couldn’t move, when society believed the more blood seen on a doctor’s frock, the better the doctor, when surgeries were performed on stages with a live audience of medical students, and when patients were cut and bled to cure them of various ailments.
We’ve come a loooooong way, and this book was an entertaining way to be reminded of that.
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