We’ve suffered from a dearth of adult nonfiction for teens this year, but today I am thrilled to bring you a great recommendation. In fact, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels shares some of the very best qualities of Mary Roach’s iconic Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, especially a gross-out curiosity factor and great story-telling. Add a larger-than-life subject and you have narrative nonfiction magic. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz tells her story with gusto, taking the reader from the hospitals of Paris to the great medical colleges of Philadelphia in the first half of the 19th century.
There is a lot of medical history here, but it is so unbelievable, so over-the-top (yet true!) that readers will be riveted. Mütter himself is quite a character, from being orphaned as a child to sailing for Paris alone without a dime, to his entertaining teaching style, his incredible bravado and talent for developing new plastic surgery techniques, and a real empathy for his patients, many of whom were societal outcasts due to their terrible deformities.
Back matter includes extensive paged source notes, which allow the narrative to flow like a novel. Illustrations (carefully credited) are black & white, and include sketches of patients, anatomical drawings, and photographs of equipment or works of art depicting a surgical theater from the time period, for example.
*APTOWICZ, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. 371p. illus. index. notes. photos. Penguin/Gotham. Sept. 2014. Tr $27.50. ISBN 9781592408702. LC 2014014747.
You wouldn’t want to be a patient undergoing surgery in Philadelphia in the 1830s. Anesthesia hadn’t yet been invented, so a cup of wine would be used to dull your senses prior to the procedure. A crowd would watch in the operating theater, and the best you could hope for was a surgeon who was quick enough to lessen your stress and pain, but slow enough to do the job correctly. If you were really lucky, he might wash his hands. After the operation, you’d be promptly sent home in a carriage, bouncing on cobblestone streets. When Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter burst onto the scene, medicine was ripe for change. Aptowicz introduces readers to the pioneering young surgeon responsible for helping to lead a revolution. Mütter stood out in his field as much for his handsome good looks and colorful silk suits as his engaging, outsize personality. Known for his compassionate way with patients, he saw possibilities in the new field of plastic surgery for helping those with debilitating physical deformities. Informed by an abundance of research, Aptowicz’s crackling prose brings the surgeon to life, immersing readers in the shocking world of primitive medicine in the pre-Civil War era. She gives ample page time to his contemporaries, including those who held vastly opposing views on the best way to treat patients. Chock-full of fascinating facts and anecdotes, this page-turning biography will engage those teens who enjoy narrative nonfiction.—Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD