Thursday, September 18, 2014

Legacy ("Dr. Mütter's Marvels" by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz)

When Thomas Mütter died in 1859 at the age of 47, friends and colleagues alike celebrated his life and career while also bemoaning the possibility that he might someday be forgotten. After all, his importance to medial science and the field of surgery was extraordinary. He was one of the first surgeons in the country to use early forms of anesthesia, which enabled him to perform complicated and often primitive procedures with little pain inflicted on his patients. He also embraced the idea that doctors should operate in sterile environments as to prevent infection and the spread of bacteria; that the care patients received after surgery was just as important as the care they received during surgery; and that doctors should treat their patients with compassion and understanding rather than indifference, as though they were little more than walking, breathing cadavers on which to experiment. All of these notions were newfangled and even controversial at the time, and Mütter faced pushback from many of his own colleagues, who felt as though any challenge to the status quo was an affront both professional and personal. Mütter belonged to a generation of surgeons who saw the limitations and mistakes of his chosen field and worked to change them for the better--to put the patient's wellbeing first and disregard ego completely.

In writing the story of Thomas Mütter from beginning to end, and even beyond those two seemingly final boundaries, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz has fulfilled the wish of many of those who hoped for an "able hand" to someday write his biography--the story of "a great and good man," a pioneer in American medicine. And while it took more than 150 years for that book to be written--during which time American medicine advanced with such speed and breadth that even a man as forward-thinking as Mütter would be astonished--it arrived at a perfectly opportune time, as the legacy of Thomas Mütter has evolved over that same span of time into something he would have never expected. Today, this accomplished and altruistic man is known for the museum that bears his name and the thousands of specimens housed within its fireproof walls: evidence of medical mysteries, anatomical anomalies, and disquieting disfigurements. There is the death-cast of Chang and Eng, history's most famous Siamese twins; glass cases filled with skulls; organs, tumors, and growths preserved in jars; an 8-foot human colon; the body of a "soap woman"; the face of a horned Frenchwoman; and dozens of artistic renderings of those who suffered from horrifying deformities, among many others.

In truth, this museum seems almost tailor-made for our current age, where morbid curiosity can be veiled by the anonymity of the Internet, photographs and articles can be shared to millions at the touch of a finger, and various aggregator websites can use the museum's seemingly endless collections to increase their click-and-share statistics with attention-grabbing headlines. It's tempting now to see Mütter's museum--the encapsulation of his life's work, his philosophy as a doctor and man--as a Barnumesque sideshow, its tents and flaps replaced by beautiful architecture and an association with one of Philadelphia's great colleges. However, the gawk-and-share attitude of our modern age makes us unable--or maybe even unwilling--to see the truth behind Mütter's legacy. Rather than preserving these thousands of specimens because of their shocking nature, he did so because of the stories behind them. When Mütter operated on a patient suffering from strange or startling problems--a face deformed by burns, say--he looked them in the eyes, treated them like human beings rather than untouchables, talked them through the procedures, and looked after their comfort during the operation, which was especially important in the years before anesthesia. Where others, including Mütter's own colleagues, saw patients whose impairments made them less than human--and therefore less deserving of kindness or respect--he saw them as equals in need of his help. Mütter's legacy is one of empathy and grace, two traits that are downright necessary when treating people suffering from debilitating ailments, and his museum is a testament to his ability to look beyond the damage into the person beneath. To feature these scars in a museum is to create a monument to Mütter's humanity--a collection of pieces that speak to his ability to see beyond the pain they caused and recognize the frailties, and promises, in us all.