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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

In 1953, a twenty-seven-year-old factory worker named Henry Molaison—who suffered from severe epilepsy—received a radical new version of the then-common lobotomy, targeting the most mysterious structures in the brain. The operation failed to eliminate Henry’s seizures, but it did have an unintended effect: Henry was left profoundly amnesic, unable to create long-term memories. Over the next sixty years, Patient H.M., as Henry was known, became the most studied individual in the history of neuroscience, a human guinea pig who would teach us much of what we know about memory today.

Patient H.M. is, at times, a deeply personal journey. Dittrich’s grandfather was the brilliant, morally complex surgeon who operated on Molaison—and thousands of other patients. The author’s investigation into the dark roots of modern memory science ultimately forces him to confront unsettling secrets in his own family history, and to reveal the tragedy that fueled his grandfather’s relentless experimentation—experimentation that would revolutionize our understanding of ourselves.

Dittrich uses the case of Patient H.M. as a starting point for a kaleidoscopic journey, one that moves from the first recorded brain surgeries in ancient Egypt to the cutting-edge laboratories of MIT. He takes readers inside the old asylums and operating theaters where psychosurgeons, as they called themselves, conducted their human experiments, and behind the scenes of a bitter custody battle over the ownership of the most important brain in the world.

Patient H.M. combines the best of biography, memoir, and science journalism to create a haunting, endlessly fascinating story, one that reveals the wondrous and devastating things that can happen when hubris, ambition, and human imperfection collide

This was a completely fascinating look at brain science, interwoven with a compelling family history that I can easily recommend to anyone who likes non-fiction of this type.The author's grandfather was one of several surgeons who developed and promoted the lobotomy as the cure all for any mental illness or instability, including epilepsy, in the mid-1900s. Many of the patients were from mental hospitals, and the records are unclear as to if they were fully informed of the treatment and/or if it really helped them. What is clear, however, is that much about the structures of the brain and the functions of different areas was mapped out due to the vast numbers of lobotomies and other similar surgeries.  Patient HM is a very special case, for two reasons. One, he wasn't mentally ill when he had surgery. Unlike many of the people in the mental wards, HM was severely epileptic, to the point where he could no longer function. This meant that any affects on his intelligence could be easily noted from before to after, as he could participate in testing and was cooperative. Second, the operation performed on HM had the effect of making him completely amnesiac. He was able to remember small bits of his childhood, but could not remember someone he was introduced to 2 minutes prior. This alone led the researchers to test HM over and over to try to figure out how exactly memory was stored and what types of memory he might could form.

Inseparable from HM's story is that of the author's grandparents, his grandfather's ambition, his grandmother's own mental breakdown, and the fallout of his success. The entire book is full of details and facts that while not necessarily about Patient HM, really round out the picture of where brain science was, and how people came to make the discoveries that they did. It is both fascinating and slightly horrifying, and makes you feel very grateful for the advances in pharmaceuticals that allow us to not attempt things like lobotomies in 2016. The book is well written, as well as interesting, and I would happily recommend it to anyone who likes this type of non-fiction.


  1. This sounds interesting. Brain science is not a subject that usually grabs me so I worried that this one might feel a little too medical journal-y but it sounds like a good read. I'm interested in lobotomies right now because I have the Rosemary Kennedy bio coming up on my reading list and I've always been fascinated by her.

  2. When you think back to the horrors of medicine in the early years it's terrifying. This should be a good memoir, I'm glad you reviewed this one.


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