Philadelphia’s Dr. Mütter and his marvels
• Wed, Sep 10, 2014
By Thom Nickels
The Mutter Museum is the talk of the talk of the town these days. Although it was always on the city’s radar of extraordinary places to visit, it has never been as popular as it seems to be today.
Adding to the museum’s popularity is a new biography of Thomas Dent Mutter, by Philadelphia born Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Gotham Books). Aptowicz, a New York University grad, has garnered a reputation as a good slam poet in the New York City slam poetry scene, although she currently lives in Austin, Texas.
Although the subculture world of the poetry slam is a mixed bag of verbal insanities, I did not expect an unorthodox lecture at the museum when I went with a friend to hear Cristin speak about Thomas Mutter. Of course, it should be noted that it was my first time in the museum in years.
In years past that I would come away from the Mutter with a strange sense of inner paralysis bordering on depression, as if some energy in those bottles and vials had reached out and caused me to feel lousy about life and people. In my more rational moments, I dismissed this all as superstition.
At the Mutter this time to hear Aptowicz, I’d forgotten about those unpleasant experiences. Guests were treated to an appetizing reception in the museum’s main hall. Clearly, much of the author’s family was present, even children, and the overall vibe was happy and enthusiastic, in stark contrast to all those hidden bottles of specimens (and death) in the museum’s back rooms.
I was looking forward to hearing about the Virginia-born Thomas Dent Mutter, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before he became a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College. Thomas Mutter’s massive medical research specimen collection became the basis for the museum’s founding in 1863. I need not list all these medical marvels, but among them you will find the body of the soap lady; a nine foot long human colon, preserved random human organs and body parts, and the skeleton of a dwarf and a giant. And this, of course, is just the beginning.
But who was Dr. Mutter, really? What did he think and what did he believe? Was he married with children? Was he a Freemason? When and how did he die? But most importantly, how did the museum come to be established? I was hoping the lecture would be a Whitman’s Sampler of information bits.
The mostly upbeat crowd—there were lots of giggling girls although the children present did not misbehave—almost filled the strikingly attractive lecture room. Aptowicz was introduced by her husband, always a nice thing, but she wasn’t anything like I expected. I suppose I expected a tall, regal woman like Gretchen Worden (1947-2004), the museum’s curator in 1982 until her appointment as Director in 1988. Aptowicz’s likeable ham-it-up persona—one could easily imagine her talking up a Julia Child cookbook—made me understand, in a way, the chorus of gigglers I had heard earlier.
Clearly, this was not going to be a conventional talk on Dr. Mutter’s life but instead it would veer off into the unpredictable, most notably into the loose ended come-what-may world of slam poetry, with three guest readings by friends of the author, one of them a slam poet military paratrooper who, as it turned out, looked more like an accountant.
By the talk’s end, I only learned two things about Mutter, the first being that he was the first to advocate anesthesia during surgery; the second being that he was the first physician to come up with the idea of a recovery room after surgery. Aptowicz did touch very briefly on Mutter’s time in Paris (to bring back medical ideas) but after that the talk became an info-commercial on the author’s life.
The info-commercial went as follows: how a portion of the book was excerpted by The Atlantic Monthly; a report to the audience on a rave review in The Wall Street Journal; how the author obtained a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry; how she landed a 2013 Amy Clampith Residency; some references to her six books of poetry; how she was named a University of Pennsylvania Arts Edge Writer in Residence, and her being given a Francis C. Wood Institute Travel Grant to support her work on the book. The guest readers, in keeping with the surrealist come-what-may dynamics of a poetry slam, read sensationalistic excerpts from 1800 medical texts, while one reader beautifully acted out a scene of hospital gore, after which there was a round of giggly applause.
At the delightful reception, Aptowicz’s mom told me that she had great hopes that one of those Long Island wealthy simmer vacationers reading The Wall Street Journal’s review of the book were hopefully thinking of producing Aptowicz’s screenplay on Dr. Mutter, a 2003 award winner at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
"Plus, you know, Mom added, "she was on Marty Moss-Coane earlier, and she’ll be at the Free Library later this month."
"All of this is super fabulous," one might have answered. "Kudos and accolades and laurel wreaths to your wonderful daughter, but can you tell us where to go to find out something about Thomas Dent Mutter?" (It didn’t help, of course, that when I gave my card to the Texas writer—ostensibly asking to interview her—she immediately directed me to her marketing person, after first directing me to her agent, who looked like Ann Coulter.)
Out on the street, my head reeling with info commercial data, I only wanted to go home and go to bed.