DR. MUTTER'S MARVELS
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
A mesmerizing biography of the brilliant and eccentric medical innovator who revolutionized American surgery and founded the country’s most famous museum of medical oddities Imagine undergoing an operation without anesthesia, performed by a surgeon who refuses to sterilize his tools—or even wash his hands. This was the world of medicine when Thomas Dent Mütter began his trailblazing career as a plastic surgeon in Philadelphia during the mid-nineteenth century.
Although he died at just forty-eight, Mütter was an audacious medical innovator who pioneered the use of ether as anesthesia, the sterilization of surgical tools, and a compassion-based vision for helping the severely deformed, which clashed spectacularly with the sentiments of his time. Brilliant, outspoken, and brazenly handsome, Mütter was flamboyant in every aspect of his life. He wore pink silk suits to perform surgery, added an umlaut to his last name just because he could, and amassed an immense collection of medical oddities that would later form the basis of Philadelphia’s renowned Mütter Museum.
Award-winning writer Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz vividly chronicles how Mütter’s efforts helped establish Philadelphia as a global mecca for medical innovation—despite intense resistance from his numerous rivals. (Foremost among them: Charles D. Meigs, an influential obstetrician who loathed Mütter’s “overly modern” medical opinions.) In the narrative spirit of The Devil in the White City, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels interweaves an eye-opening portrait of nineteenth-century medicine with the riveting biography of a man once described as the “[P. T.] Barnum of the surgery room.”
1. What is it about Dr. Mutter’s story that made you want to dig deeper and write this book?
I am a life-long lover of nonfiction and when I first stumbled upon Mutter’s story, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been told before. Mutter was such an original—brilliant, flamboyant, compassionate, eccentric and outspoken. I knew from the very beginning that it would make a great book, but I was 21-years-old when I first walked into the Mutter Museum archive, and didn’t have the self-confidence as a writer yet to believe that I could be the person who got to tell his story. It was only after I published my first book of nonfiction, Words In Your Face, my contemporary history of the poetry slam movement, that I finally saw that the only person standing between me and writing this book was me! And that was it! Within a year, I left my job of eight years (and my NYC apartment of ten years) to begin a year-long residency at the University of Pennsylvania to begin in earnest the research and writing of the book that became Dr Mutter’s Marvels.
2. Did your research for this book lead you into any other interesting discoveries?
Of course! That’s the beauty of being a nonfiction writer! You are always excavating more stories than you could possibly ever need! Each seemingly more interesting than the last. I remember seeing an author talk with Erik Larson (whose book, The Devil in the White City, was a huge inspiration for Dr Mutter’s Marvels), and felt that he shared my intense love of research. I was in the middle of the research portion of my project, so I felt overwhelmed by the desire to include EVERYTHING, and so during the Q&A, I asked him how he was able to figure out what in his research he should include in the book, and what to leave on the cutting room floor, when he clearly found it all so interesting! He answered that the key was not to include all the details (even though you will want to!), but rather find the most telling details – the one fact the reader will see, and it will unlock for them that character, that event, that time period for the rest of the book. And that’s what I strove for with Dr Mutter’s Marvels: to share the best stories I found that give you the telling details to understand Mutter, his time, and his incredible journey.
3. What steps did you take to prepare for writing this book?
I read a lot of nonfiction! Well, truth be told, I’ve always been a life-long nonfiction reader! But this time, I read a combination of new books and old favorites with the specific intent of unlocking their secrets: how did this book keep my intention, how did the author feed me key bits of information, how did the author introduce character, how did the author emerge the reader so deeply into the time period, what were my favorite parts and why? If you look at my bookshelf at home and have read Dr Mutter’s Marvels, it wouldn’t be hard to see the DNA of those books infused very deeply into my work.
4. What resources or tools did you find useful in writing this book?
My biggest research asset has always been actual human beings. These days you can do a lot of work on the internet and/or at home, and feel like you are getting a good sense of what you are researching. But I cannot stress enough the importance of getting out of your house, and into archival libraries, historical societies, museums and, heck, even graveyards, and talking with the brilliant, passionate folks who work there. So many of my big breakthroughs came from talking to these champions of knowledge… and so many of my potential stupidest blunders were avoided by their gentle corrections too!
5. How long did it take you, beginning of research to final product, to complete this book?
I first walked into the Mutter Museum archive in December 1999, and I turned in my final draft of the book in May 2014. Now I didn’t spend all those years focused solely on researching Mutter, but certainly, his story rattled around in my brain for over a decade before I was able to share with the general public!
6. What is the most important thing you have to do as an author of nonfiction vs. fiction?
My fiancé is a fiction writer (also a New York Times best seller!), and he was working on his second novel while I was working on Dr Mutter’s Marvels, and we both commented often about how impressed we were about the other’s writing process and how we could never ever do it ourselves.
My fiancé would tell me how frustrating he would be if he couldn’t just write what he wanted! The idea that a character just wouldn’t be fleshed out because there was was no research to support it would be the death of the project for him.
For me, I viewed his fiction writing with equal confusion and awe. You mean a character could just die because you said so? They could change genders, or races, at the author’s will? Two characters could be condensed into one? Entire plot points could be manipulated, or deleted entirely? WHAT? To me the absolutely freedom that a fiction writer has over his world is terrifying, and paralyzing!
One of the reasons I love nonfiction is because I get to use truth and facts to paint the portrait of a real human being, to uncover a secret history of a great person (or a terrible one!). I don’t find being limited to these facts as a handicap, but rather as one of my most fun tools. It’s so lovely to use actual facts—popular songs of the time, the weather on a specific day, etc…—to foreshadow, to heighten contrast, to draw attention to or distract from the protagonist’s journey. Facts are not a hindrace to me, but a gift!
7. What do you want people to take away from reading this book?
Firstly, I would love for people to plan enjoy reading it. My favorite nonfiction books are pleasures to read, in addition to be filled with delicious facts that you immediately want to share with anyone you know in earshot. I hope my book does that for folks.
Secondly, I would love to have people look at modern medicine differently—to appreciate deeply how far we’ve come (and be grateful for those individuals who fought hard for those innovations), but also to recognize how far we still need to go.
And lastly, I hope they find the story of Dr Mutter inspiring. He was scrappy, compassionate upstart, he was relentlessly driven in a spire of huge obstacles. I think we all have moments when our dreams seem impossible. I hope reading Mutter’s story will inspire people to keep at it, find new ways to achieve their goals, and ignore all those who try to stop them!
8. Were you an avid reader as a child and/teen? What were some of your favorites?
Oh, absolutely, I was an avid reader. When I was really young, I loved reading the New Basic Readers series. You might remember the earliest incarnations of these book—the “See Dick Run! See Sally Go!” books—but they actually continued all the way up to the 8th grade level, telling increasingly more complex stories. My mother collected the books, and I read and re-read them all through out my childhood, as my mother had a rule about bedtime: you were allowed to stay up as late as you wanted, as long as you were reading. So I read a lot.
As I got older (pre-teens), I began to fall in love with historical fiction—stories that helped me better understand things like the Holocaust, the Japanese internment camps, and other horrors of the real world that teachers and parents seem to address quickly and move on. These books—often with girl characters who were my age or a little older—allowed me to understand these events in an intimate way that felt true.
But the time I was a teen, I crossed fully over into nonfiction, loving memoir, biography and narrative nonfiction the best.
And in college, I began to read poetry more in earnest as well. Buying books of good poetry is my go-to answer for people who say they don’t have “time” to read. Make your bathroom and kitchen a “phone free zone,” and keep a collection of great poetry anthologies—Good Poems and Good Poems for Bad Times edited by Garrison Keillor, and The Art of Losing by Kevin Young being great starts—in arm’s reach, and you’ll be surprised how just a few minutes of reading will cause these small bullets of literature to get lodged in your heart and mind for the rest of the day. And your day will be better for it, I guarantee.
9. Were you curious as a child? How did you explore things you were curious about?
I was very curious as child! My mother, who really developed in me my love of reading and nonfiction, was constantly sharing with me all the interesting things she was reading in her latest book. Books to me seem to be this magical tools which unlocked some of the strangest, most fascinating things I’d ever heard, and I think half the reason I dove so deeply into books was to have a bit of that magic my mom had—to swagger into school, and say, You will NOT believe what I read that is absolutely TRUE!
10. What or who would you say has had the greatest influence on your writing?
My mother, Maureen O’Keefe Aptowicz, without a doubt. When I first began performing poetry, one of my earliest poems was about her incredible influence on me and my decision to pursue of career of being a writer. Today, a decade and half later, it remains one of my most popular poems, and my most watched video on YouTube:
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is an award-winning non-fiction writer, poet, and touring author. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she first visited the Mütter Museum in the fourth grade. She lives in Austin, Texas.
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