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.
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.
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.