Medical Terminology Daily (MTD) is a blog sponsored by Clinical Anatomy Associates, Inc. as a service to the medical community, medical students, and the medical industry. We will post a workweek daily medical or surgical term, its meaning and usage, as well as biographical notes on anatomists, surgeons, and researchers through the ages. Be warned that some of the images used depict human anatomical specimens.

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A Moment in History

Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter
Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1859)

Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter


Thomas Dent Mutter was born on March 9, 1811, in Richmond, VA. His mother died in 1813, and his father died of tuberculosis in 1817. Thomas was orphaned when he was barely 8 years old. His father left him a somewhat meager inheritance and in his early life had to do with less that others with his objectives in life. He was well educated under the tutelage of Robert Carter, his guardian, and in 1824 he started his studies at the Hampden Sidney College of Virginia. He continued with a medical apprenticeship with a Dr. Simms in VA. He was well respected and even at his early age he would do home visits for his medical benefactor with great results. He started medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his MD in 1831. The new young doctor, Thomas Dent Mutter, MD was only 20 years of age.

At the time, Europe was the place to go to if you wanted advanced medical studies. Dr. Mutter had no money, so he applied as a ship surgeon to be able to cross the Atlantic. Once in Europe, he spent time in Paris, where he studied under the tutelage of Dr. Guillaume Dupuytren. He later studied for a short time in England where he met Dr. Robert Liston. Following Dupuytren's teachings, Mutter was fascinated by plastic surgery.

A chance encounter with what was to become his first well-known acquisition of a medical curiosity, Mutter started thinking on how to help those people that were known at that time as “monsters”, patients who the general public did not see, because they did not appear in public. The curiosity in question was a wax reproduction of the face of a French woman who had a “horn” arising from her forehead. This piece is on exhibit at the Mütter Museum.

Back in the United States in 1832, Thomas Dent Mutter changed his last name to give it a more “European” sound and added an “umlaut”, so now he was Thomas D. Mütter, MD. It may also be that he wanted to pay homage to his Scottish-German heritage, who knows? He opened his medical office in Philadelphia and although it took time, eventually he had a thriving practice. One of his specialties was the work on “deformities” so common at the time because of facial scars born out of the use of open fires in houses, and deformities caused by burns and loss of tissue due to chemicals used in local industry. Dr. Mütter is the pioneer of what we call today “Reconstructive Surgery”.

In 1835 he was asked to join the Medical Institute of Philadelphia as an assistant professor of Surgery. He was an instant success. Dr. Mütter was adored by his students because, he would question the students and guide them to discovery instead of just lecturing and leaving. In his Discourse eulogy of Dr. Mütter by Joseph Pancoast he writes:” The power of attracting students near him by his mingled gentleness, energy, and enthusiasm; of fixing their attention by the lucid and methodical arrangements of his Subject, by his clear demonstrations, and sprightly oral elucidations, came so readily to him, and was so early displayed) as to seem almost intuitive.” In 1841 Dr Mütter was appointed Professor of Surgery at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

Dr. Mütter had always had poor health, even in childhood, and his dedication to his passion, long hours, took its toll on his body. In 1956 he set sail for Europe and resigned his teaching duties. He was named Emeritus Professor of Surgery. Unfortunately, the trip did not help, and he returned to the US in early 1958. Fearful of another winter in cold Philadelphia, he moved to Charleston, SC, where he died on March 19, 1859.

Dr. Mütter’s story does not end here. He was an avid collector and throughout his short life he had pulled together an impressive collection of medical oddities, samples, and curiosities. Knowing that his life was at an end, he negotiated with the Philadelphia College of Physicians to have them host his collection in perpetuity as well as the creation of a trust fund that would ensure that the public and medical students would have access to this incredible collection. Through the years this collection has increased and is known today as the Mütter Museum of the Philadelphia College of Physicians. I strongly urge our readers to visit this incredible museum. For more information, click here.

Personal notes: In the late 90’s, I attended a meeting of the American Association of Clinical Anatomists.  During the meeting I met Gretchen Worden, who at the time was the Curator of the Mütter museum. Gretchen was inspirational, fun, and a great conversationalist! I had the opportunity to visit Gretchen at the Mütter museum and had the luck to be treated to a “behind the scenes” tour. What an experience! I was saddened to hear that Gretchen Worden passed on August 2, 2004. Still, in my recent visit to the Mütter Museum, I was glad to see a new section at the museum that remembers Gretchen. Her biography can be read here.

I would like to thank Dr. Leslie Wolf for lending me the book by O’Keefe that lead to me writing this article. Dr. Miranda

1. “Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine” O’Keefe, C. 2015 Penguin Random House, LLC
2. “A Discourse Commemorative of the Late Professor T.D. Mütter” Pancoast, J. 1859 J Wilson Publisher
3. “Thomas Dent Mütter: the humble narrative of a surgeon, teacher, and curious collector” Baker, J, et al. The American Surgeon, Atlanta 77:iss5 662-14
4. “Thomas Dent Mutter, MD: early reparative surgeon” Harris, ES; Morgan, RF. Ann Plast Surg 1994 33(3):333-8
5. “5 Things I Learned from Thomas Dent Mütter” O’Keefe C.

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Azygos venous system

The azygos venous system drains the posterior aspect of the thorax via the posterior intercostal veins It also connects the vascular territories of the superior vena cava and the  inferior vena cava, and is the superior continuation of the lumbar veins. The azygos system was first described by Bartolomeo Eustachius (c1500 - 1574).

The name azygos comes from the Greek [ζεύγος] and means “unyoked” or better “asymmetrical”. This system is different on each side of the body, also having important anatomical variations.

The azygos vein (Lat: vena azygos major) is the larger vein of the azygos system and is found on the right side of the body. It begins at the level of the first or second lumbar vertebra as a continuation of the right ascending lumbar vein; sometimes by a branch from the right renal vein or from the inferior vena cava. It enters the thoracic cavity through the aortic hiatus of the respiratory diaphragm, and ascends along the right side of the vertebral column to level of the fourth thoracic vertebra, where it arches forward over the root of the right lung, at this point the vein is called the azygos arch, which terminates in the posterior aspect of the superior vena cava (SVC) just superior to the point where the SVC enters the pericardium.

In the thorax, the azygos vein is found to the right of the thoracic duct on the right side of the descending aorta; it lies upon the intercostal arteries and is partly covered by the parietal pleura.

The azygos vein receives the right subcostal vein, nine or ten right posterior intercostal veins, the hemiazygos vein, the accessory hemiazygos vein, the right superior intercostal vein, and several minor esophageal, mediastinal, and pericardial veins.

The left side of this system is more complex and presents with more anatomical variations. Its main component is the hemiazygos vein (Lat: vena azygos minor), also known as the left lower azygos vein. It is a continuation of the left ascending lumbar vein, and it sometimes may arise from the left renal vein and passes into the thorax usually through the left aortic crus of the respiratory diaphragm. It ascends to the level of the 7th or 8th thoracic vertebra where it crosses the midline posterior to the esophagus, descending aorta and thoracic duct to empty into the right-sided azygos vein.  It receives the left subcostal vein and three to four lower posterior intercostal veins, and some esophageal and mediastinal veins.

1. Right brachiocephalic vein 2. Right supreme intercostal vein 3. Superior vena cava 4. Right superior intercostal vein 5. Hemiazygos vein 6. Right subcostal vein 7. Right ascending lumbar vein 8. Left brachiocephalic vein 9. Left internal jugular vein 10. Left supreme intercostal vein 11. Left superior intercostal vein 12. Left posterior intercostal veins 13. Accessory hemiazygos vein 14. Left subcostal vein 15. Left ascending lumbar vein 16. Inferior vena cava
  1. Right brachiocephalic vein
  2. Right supreme intercostal vein
  3. Superior vena cava
  4. Right superior intercostal vein
  5. Hemiazygos vein
  6. Right subcostal vein
  7. Right ascending lumbar vein
  8. Left brachiocephalic vein
  9. Left internal jugular vein
  10. Left supreme intercostal vein
  11. Left superior intercostal vein
  12. Left posterior intercostal veins
  13. Accessory hemiazygos vein
  14. Left subcostal vein
  15. Left ascending lumbar vein
  16. Inferior vena cava
The second component of the left azygos system is the accessory hemiazygos vein, also known as the left upper hemiazygos. This component varies in size depending on the third venous drainage component of the left posterior thoracic wall. This is the left superior intercostal vein (see attached diagram).

The accessory hemiazygos, similar to the hemiazygos vein will cross the midline posterior to the esophagus, descending aorta and thoracic duct to empty into the right-sided azygos vein. It may do so by a common vein or by a separate vein as shown in the attached diagram. If there is a common vein the hemiazygos is considered to be the inferior component and the hemiazygos is considered to be the superior component.

The left superior intercostal vein receives three or four posterior intercostal veins, and empties into the left brachiocephalic vein. In rare cases of absence of the hemiazygos vein, this left superior intercostal vein will extend as low as the fifth or sixth intercostal space.

Although not considered to be part of the azygos system, the drainage of the posterior thoracic wall is completed by the right and left supreme intercostal veins which empty the posterior aspect of the first intercostal space into the left and right brachiocephalic veins respectively.

The azygos system of veins constitute an important collateral venous circulation pathway which can be seen in action in cases of blockage of the superior or inferior vena cavae.
1. “Gray’s Anatomy” Henry Gray, 1918
2. "Tratado de Anatomia Humana" Testut et Latarjet 8th Ed. 1931 Salvat Editores, Spain
3. "Gray's Anatomy" 38th British Ed. Churchill Livingstone 1995

4. "Reconstructive Anatomy: A Method for the Study of Human Structure: Arnold, M WB Saunders1968
Image modified from the original from Arnold (4)