Read This, Watch That: Dr. Mütter’s Marvels and The Knick


I don’t spend much time with the television playing randomly. There are a handful of shows I watch each season and when I get into a show (usually a super stylized period drama) I really get into it. One of my recent obsessions, The Knick, wrapped its first season a few weeks ago and left me feeling sad about the lack of bloody operating theaters in my life. Thankfully, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels came around just in time.

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

In the early 1800’s, anesthesia had not yet been developed for medical use. The use of leeches for bleeding was common practice and the spread of bacteria was so misunderstood that post-operative infection was seen as a sign of healing. While some doctors felt content in practicing medicine as it had been practiced for years, by the mid-1800’s, others began to seek progress.

In Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz follows the unlikely man from a sickly childhood to his time as a popular surgeon and teacher at Jefferson Medical College. Well ahead of his colleagues, Dr. Mütter insisted on taking time to focus on both pre and post-operative care, stressing the importance of consulting with his patients. At a time when every cut made by a surgeon would be felt, Dr. Mütter believed it was important to completely outline every procedure for his patients, many of whom suffered from disfiguring abnormalities.

But Dr. Mütter’s foresight didn’t end there—he was leaps and bounds ahead of his colleagues in preventing the spread of disease, the early use of ether and even the concept of diversity. Aptowicz paints an absolutely fascinating portrait of a man who should be remembered for much more than the medical collections he left behind.

The Knick (Cinemax)

By 1900, germ theory had been widely accepted and more “had been learned about about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous five hundred.” Though the fictionalized version of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital, known as The Knick, feels modern compared to the world of Dr. Mütter just 50 years earlier, it’s not without its problems. Dr. John Thackery, The Knick’s head surgeon, willingly takes on the most difficult cases in hopes of reaching medical breakthroughs, but finds himself continuously held back by his own opium addiction. With themes that mirror the challenges Dr. Mütter faced and historical figures well-known to most viewers, The Knick is the perfect follow-up to the engrossing world of Dr. Mütter’s Marvels.

  • Kerry M

    We watched the first two episodes of Knick before we left for Europe in September, and now haven’t gotten back to it (we got distracted by Blacklist, and me by Gilmore Girls…). But this has me wanting to go back and pick it back up… and find this book to go with. Love this approach to a review, by the way!

    • I was hooked by the first few episodes, but I think the show really picks up in the middle of the season – I was TOTALLY sold by then.

  • I do recommend that anyone finding themselves in Philadelphia make time for a stop at the gloriously creepy Mutter Museum–it has Dr. Mutter’s collection of “medical oddities” from the 19th century. I hope to read some of the book later this fall or winter. I haven’t seen The Knick, but maybe I’ll give it a try!

  • Karen White

    I had been wondering about The Knick – love Clive Owen! I will have to look for it (hope it’s on Netflix). This is a great post idea, too. The book is going on my TBR list!

    • It’s not on Netflix right now, but I hope it makes it there soon! The book is a great way to hold yourself over for a bit, though :)

  • AnnabelSmith

    I’ve never even heard of The Knick but it sounds awesome! Will definitely look out for it.

    • I don’t think I would have heard of it if we didn’t get a few preview episodes on HBO, but I ended up loving it!

  • I would love both of these! Although, I kind of wish I was still blissfully unaware that The Knick existed. The book is now on my list.

    • Haha, I always feel that way with TV shows (I find myself thinking of all the things I could be doing instead)! Definitely check out the book, it’s fantastic.

  • Ahh, these both sound great! We don’t have cable, so The Knick is probably out for me, but it sounds really good!

    I think you would like the Sawbones podcast. It’s “a marital tour of misguided medicine;” a doctor and her goofy husband explore the history of a different medical condition and its treatments each week, and it’s really funny, gross, and fascinating.

    • OH YES, I love a good podcast rec!

      If you have Netflix and haven’t watched A Young Doctor’s Notebook yet, it’s in a similar vein. I love it, too, but it’s a little less serious (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!).

  • I cannot wait to read this!! I am a bit grotesquely fascinated by old and strange medical things. *cough* Will definitely check out the show now. :)

  • SUCH a good book. I think it’s such a bummer that he’s remembered for his collection. He was trying to help those people, he wasn’t some weirdo who collected bizarre items. I didn’t realize that myself until I read this book. Excellent :D I have a feeling that I’d really like Knick.

    • Honestly, I didn’t even know his name for anything (not even the museum!) before hearing about the book. I’ll hang my history teacher head in shame over here.

  • The Knick is one of my favorite shows. I’ve been recommending it to anyone who likes historical dramas (and doesn’t mind realistic gore). I’ve been watching it “on demand” and have one more episode to go! Clive Owen & the rest of the cast do a very good job at creating compelling characters.

    I currently have the Dr. Mutter book at home, but haven’t started reading it yet, just skimmed it. Fascinating man, I still need to go to Philly some day and see his collection.

    Both the show and this book make me even more grateful for modern medicine, that’s for sure!

    • I think you’ll definitely love reading the book after finishing up the show. There are so many parallels and it did a great job filling that space I was missing once the show was over.

  • What a pair! I love stuff like this, so it sounds like I need to read and watch.

    • You totally do! I definitely think you’d love Mr. Mutter’s Marvels, and it would follow well after Smoke Gets in Your Eyes!

  • Words for Worms

    My husband is addicted to The Knick! I’ve only seen bits and pieces but what I’ve seen is pretty awesome. Now I feel like I need to check out Dr. Mutter!

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