Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s new biography, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels (Gotham, Sept.), is set in Philadelphia in the middle of the 19th century. You’re going into labor, or perhaps you accidentally sliced your leg open. The doctor gives you wine to calm your nerves. His fingers are covered with earlier patients’ blood. This was the world Dr. Thomas Mütter entered.

Mütter quickly rose through the medical elite, specializing in “radical surgery”—the art of fixing “monsters” (those with burns covering their faces or severe cleft palates, for instance).

Mütter did not just establish a museum of “marvels”—specimens, wax figures, and other educational pieces he collected; he was a marvel himself. He was an excellent professor and a caring doctor. Aptowicz approaches her subject with passion and finesse, so that the book to reads more like fiction than nonfiction, ensuring that it will appeal to a wide audience.