Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Curing Monsters in Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2021), 15, (4), 437–453.


Critically praised for its portrayal of a compassionate physician, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s 2014 New York Times bestselling biography, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, follows the life and work of Thomas Dent Mütter, an eccentric and brilliant man who supposedly cured his patients of their unacceptable deformities, thus excising their socially-constructed monstrosity. A continual emphasis on curing benign physical difference in this text is troubling, however, as cure implies a default normative body exists. By characterizing the fact that Mütter treated unique bodies as an act of heroism, the biography upholds ideals that people with unique bodies must live up to unattainable standards. Aptowicz’s emphasis on this idea creates an excavation-worthy rhetoric surrounding curative violence as it meets benign corporeal difference. In her work on curative violence, Eunjung Kim constructs the disability proxy, or person who assists the disabled or different to return to their normative state, and Mütter most certainly occupies this proxy position in Aptowicz’s biography. In the wake of curative violence, bodies that deviate from an unattainable norm must labor at all costs to reach its ill-defined center, lest they carry a stigmatizing label: monster. Through this process of emphasizing the heroic curative practices of doctors, the biographer inadvertently conjures up ableist tropes. While biographers like Aptowicz have the best of intentions when deploying the term cure, even the best of intentions benefit from critique.

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Author details

Piwarski, Rae