Compassion’s Hero

“This world is no place of rest,” Thomas Dent Mütter taught his students. “It is no place of rest, I repeat, but for effort. Steady, continuous undeviating effort.” 
— Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels (Mütter quoted, 301).

I am grateful

I remain grateful

The story of Thomas Mütter’s life as told by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz in Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, is one of compassion, intelligence and restless improvement. 19th century surgery was not for the faint of heart: neither for surgeon, patient nor reader!  And yet, what I remain in awe of is the human capacity to endure. It should be said that I write that as someone who knows excruciating and sustained pain. After all I have experienced natural childbirth in which the average length of my labors was around 27 hours (with my third child seriously undercutting the average by coming in at an “easy” ten hours—perhaps easy only to my mind by sheer comparison, but still, I remain ever so grateful).

So, I do know—one does what one must do. Yet still, it astounds me— the surgeries that men, women, and children endured; often without so much as a sip of wine.

“However, his declaration, that a surgeon would be ‘without pity,‘ is most fallacious, ” he told them firmly, “for surely there is no other profession, in the performance of the duties of which such frequent and urgent appeals are made to our sympathy, and he must be more than man—or worse than brute—who can contemplate unmoved, the agony and torture to which his patients are so often subjected.
No, gentlemen, I would say to you,
cultivate your sympathy, but learn to control it…” (237)

Thomas Mütter was, unfortunately, the rare man that let his humanity rule his morals. At a time when so many doctors treated patients as mere case studies, he treated them as brothers and sisters, no matter who they were in society’s eyes, no matter how monstrous their appearance. Perhaps due to his own status as an outsider, orphaned at a young age, alone in the classist world of 17th century Philadelphia, and suffering from his own life-long infirmities, his true empathy and kindness to his fellow human beings, whom he strove to help both physically and psychically, was in fact remarkable.

It is rather the sweetness of his character which I love most to recall; the kindness of his heart, which seldom allowed, even towards his enemies, an act of retaliation to escape him, and I believe his colleagues, in musing over his name, will have their feelings mellowed by a similar sort of retrospection” (Joseph Pancoast quoted 294).

So Pancoast, a fellow professor and doctor at Jefferson Medical College in Pennsylvania,  eulogized Mütter. But who were these said “enemies?” Incredibly, they were fellow practitioners who refused to accept the evidence of commutative diseases, (fifty years before germ theory, yes, but come on! deduction, dear Watson—the evidence, as some clearly saw and reported was apparent!), or who saw pain as some sort of divine retribution and so eschewed anesthesia—after just reading  some of the horrific yet amazing life saving and life-altering surgeries (Mütter was at the fore-front of what today is called cosmetic surgery: repairing cleft palates, restoring movement and normalcy to severe burn victims, inventing the eponymous ‘Mütter flap’ which enabled successful skin transplants, etcetera) it is difficult, in hindsight, to understand the reluctance, inertia of the status quo and arrogant hubris which compelled these men to prefer to see their patients in incomprehensible pain. The ubiquitous ability to divorce oneself from simple empathy can boggle and depress the mind. I need hardly mention the fact that a doctor could witness a surgery in which a woman who had sustained hideous burn injuries and then CHOSE (in order to once again be able to move her head or close her mouth) to undergo  restorative surgery in which she was essentially flayed while awake, sitting up and held down by a few men with barely a moan! barely a moan! that some of these same doctors could have the blinding audacity to declare women too weak to endure the rigors of being doctors themselves. It not only defies but enrages logic.

And yet, thanks to the sweet sun of each new day, we seem, ever so slowly to progress. Between all my children (mostly boys), I having naturally spent my fair share of hours in emergency rooms and I deeply appreciate the advances medicine has made and continues to make. We, as a species, are so fortunate to have among us compassionate and gifted people who labor ceaselessly for the greater good and who appreciate that the patient is somebody’s child, somebody’s parent. But I don’t think I am being cynical to wonder if a man like Edward Robinson Squibb (student of Mütter) who invented a way to make ether safe and then gave that discovery away for free to the world, would have any place in the corporation Bristol Myers Squibb that follows him.

I can’t help feeling that it is a shame on us all that such men are so remarkable. One can only hope for a day when Mütter’s ethic of compassion and progress is the norm. As a bit of history of the art of medicinal sciences, Aptowicz tells a fascinating and moving tale while also making plain that a man such as Thomas Mütter needs to be remembered, admired, and emulated. In the meantime, we endure.


5 responses to “Compassion’s Hero

  1. This story actually reminds me of my mother; her character and what she has personally endured in life.

  2. This is artful retelling, and moving to say the least. I cannot agree more that medicine is at its worst when it has lost compassion. And a high five to a fellow mom who endured awful labor. My labor and delivery changed my life view — that the body can experience pain beyond its tolerance. Made me grateful for it being temporary — that people live constantly in that state of pain is pure tragedy. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, childbirth is life-altering: in many ways more than the most obvious. The increase of empathy and compassion is significant. There is the mind-altering physical pain, and the emotional-altering vulnerability. To have a glimpse of what the most unfortunate experience daily is humbling. There but for…go I.

  3. I think a lot of kids enter the medical profession with all sorts of altruistic notions, but the sheer mass of learning & competition for places grinds it out of them. Plus responsibilities. Used to be bumper stickers: support a lawyer, become a doctor.

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