Review–Mutter’s Marvels

I just finished this book– Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. It’s a non-fiction piece about the dawn of modern medicine in pre-Civil War America, specifically Philadelphia (a hotbed of medical education, I learned).

It’s fascinating and terrifying. First, it confirms my ardent desire to never go a-time travelling. During Mutter’s lifetime (and there’s supposed to be an umlaut over the u, but I don’t know how to do that yet) anesthetics like ether, nitros and chloroform were being tested and developed for surgical use–before that, alcohol was it. Unless, of course, there was some medical reason to not drink, in which case people were operated on with nothing!

Second, there was the attitude of a doctor at the time, Meigs (don’t read this unless you aren’t planning on reading the book as it spoils some dramatic tension), who firmly believed that women were little more than beasts, unable to think or reason. I think there may still be some of those around, but at least they aren’t in the mainstream! He also spoke against any painkillers for labor since it was selfish for women to want to deliver with less pain. He also had the gall to complain that woman didn’t want to seek treatment. It is a puzzle, Dr. Meigs why those silly girls didn’t want to be seen by you.

A third strike against time travel is all the deformities that were possible, with few approaches to solve any of them. Part of what Mutter collected–his marvels of the title–were the casts and preserved materials from “monsters,” many of whom he was responsible for fixing.

This book is well-written and researched, with an engaging style. People who know everything there is to know about the history of medicine might not be as interested as I was, but I would recommend it, even so. The personalities, many larger than life, are fascinating–how they act, interact, and react is wonderful. I will say, though, that if you are squeamish, this is probably not the one to read–the descriptions are detailed!

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