Every Halloween I see articles about The Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The piece usually plays up the ‘creepy’ and ‘macabre’ aspects of the collection. While I owe a debt to one of these articles for making me aware of the museum I feel they do a disservice to what the museum really was and is – a teaching collection. It’s a tribute to the human body’s amazing diversity and endurance. The cases documented there are stunning and were collected to teach physicians of yesterday and today how to do no harm but help. So when I saw the book Dr. Mutter’s Marvels I was drawn to it. I wanted to know the history of the collection and the cases documented within. However, when I picked up the book I learned it was Dr. Mutter’s biography. My disappointment didn’t last through the introduction. The man is as riveting today as his collections.
Dr. Mutter started life as a sickly orphan. He was lucky enough to have a caring benefactor who raised him well and supported Mutter’s gift in the sciences. With his benefactor’s assistance Mutter studied medicine here then traveling to France to study the new art of plastic surgery. He liked the idea of not just healing the sick but restoring the monstrous (as those with physical deformity were called then) to a normal human life. When looking upon the people from which some of his museum’s ‘creepy’ entries were cast he saw their humanity, their souls, and the pain they had longing for life as he did when his illnesses afflicted him.
He returned and demonstrated his unusual talents. He was ambidextrous with the added bonus of using both hands simultaneously on different tasks. This resulted in his surgeries going faster in a time of no anesthesia. He also believed in telling the patient about treatment and involving them as a partner. If he was to conduct surgery he’d meet with the patient several times going over the procedure not just verbally but by touch, getting the person used to what will happen so the anticipation of what was next didn’t add terror to the pain of surgery. As a result of working with the patient and patients working with him his surgeries were done more quickly with less need for restraints, despite the lack of anesthesia.
Mutter was a pioneer embracing cleanliness in a time before that was procedure. He insisted on recovery rooms instead of dumping patients onto transportation just after surgery. He welcomed anesthesia as it was introduced. He was the American doctor on the cutting edge of medical science in his day. He became the chair of surgery at the medical college at the age of 30 bringing his changes to the next generation of doctors he taught.
His life was a short one that burned bright in his field. He died at 48. Often we lament physician heal thyself, but he could not so he gave all he had to healing those he could. He had no children but considered his students and his collection to be his bequeath to the future. Even in frail health at the end of life he was very concerned that his collection be kept together and utilized to instruct future physicians. It is from that work we have the Mutter Museum of today. Yes if you want you can go and gawk as Victorians did at side shows or you can go and learn. Mutter hoped we would learn not just how to help relieve suffering of fellow humans but also see even those called monstrosities as feel humans. To not just consider how to fix the body but acknowledge the human there and heal them as well. He wanted doctor and patient to be a team in health. He wanted observer and his collection to be a team for the betterment of humanity not just through medical procedures but through compassion. It was compassion that gave us the Marvelous Dr. Mutter for if his benefactor hadn’t given that to an orphan, medical science in the United States would have suffered.