Revealing the Oddly Human Side of Mütter’s Founder

What kind of person would collect deformed skulls and other oddities? A young, 19th century surgeon named Thomas Dent Mütter. Yes, that Mütter, as students heard from celebrated author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.

Author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz with her new book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels

A woman with a horn growing out of her head. A tumor removed from Grover Cleveland’s mouth. The body of the Soap Lady, so called because her remains are encased in a rare fatty substance. Ewww! is the usual reaction to these popular oddities at the Mütter Museum, a Philadelphia treasure infamous for its gross exhibits. But behind the weird specimens was Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a flamboyant 19th-century surgeon whose innovative surgical ideas often clashed with the conventions of the times. That’s the engrossing story poet and New York Times best-selling author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz uncovers in her new book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. Speaking at Haverford College on Feb. 11 in Stokes Auditorium, the Philadelphia native, who has enough energy to power a small town, focused on the good doctor’s fight to humanize medicine as it evolved from surgeries before anesthesia to practices of washing hands and sterilizing tools, and from classifying the disfigured as freaks and monsters to treating them with compassion. “This is a story that’s really buried in the archives,” said Aptowicz, who was fascinated by the museum ever since she visited on a fourth-grade field trip. Her fave exhibit was the horned lady. “Mütter specialized in helping people,” she added. “His story is one of curiosity, innovation, and empathy.”

Students attend author Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz's talk on Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a 19th-century surgeon.
Students attend author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s talk on Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a 19th-century surgeon.

Senior Dominique Caggiano, a religion major with plans to study medicine, has never visited the Mütter Museum, even though she hails from the Allentown area. Still, she’s “intrigued by its oddities,” she said before the presentation. “I’m interested in medicine and interested in the reason why the Mütter Museum was founded.” The talk, sponsored by Haverford’s Health Studies Program in conjunction with the Distinguished Visitors Program, provided that answer – the collection was amassed as a teaching tool – and much more.

—Lini S. Kadaba

Photos by Patrick Montero