An iPad showing the cover of the book "Patient H.M." by Luke Dittrich lays on a bamboo tray with greenery, a navy blue throw blanket, lit candle, and a cup of hot tea
Books,  Reviews

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets – Book Review

An iPad showing the cover of the book "Patient H.M." by Luke Dittrich lays on a bamboo tray with greenery, a navy blue throw blanket, lit candle, and a cup of hot tea

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publish Date: August 2016
Genre(s): Nonfiction, Science, Psychology, History, Medical, Biography
HB&W Rating: 4
View on Goodreads
Buy on Amazon: Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

Memories make us. Everything we are is everything we were.


For readers of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Hare with Amber Eyes comes a propulsive, haunting journey into the secret history of brain science by Luke Dittrich, whose grandfather performed the surgery that created the most studied human research subject of all time: the amnesic known as Patient H.M.

In the late 1930s, in asylums and hospitals across America, a group of renowned neurosurgeons embarked on a campaign to develop and refine a new class of brain operation—the lobotomy—that they hoped would eradicate everything from schizophrenia to homosexuality. These “psychosurgeons,” as they called themselves, occupied a gray zone between medical research and medical practice, and ended up subjecting untold numbers of people to the types of surgical experiments once limited to chimpanzees.

The most important test subject to emerge from this largely untold chapter in American history was a twenty-seven-year-old factory worker named Henry Molaison. In 1953, Henry—who suffered from severe epilepsy—received a radical new version of the lobotomy, one that targeted the most mysterious structures in the brain. The operation failed to eliminate Henry’s seizures, but it did have an unintended effect: Henry left the operating room profoundly amnesic, unable to create new 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.

Luke 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 conducted their human experiments, and behind the scenes of a bitter custody battle over the ownership of the most important brain in the world. Throughout, Dittrich delves into the enduring mysteries of the mind while exposing troubling stories of just how far we’ve gone in our pursuit of knowledge.

It is also, 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.

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.

Synopsis source: Goodreads


Neurosurgery, whatever the era, always requires at least two frightening qualities in its practitioners: the will to make forcible entry into another human’s brain, and the hubris to believe you can fix the problems inside.

When I originally purchased this book, I was under the impression that it would focus more like a human interest story around the most famous neuroscience case study, Henry Molaison, or as he’s referred to scientifically, Patient H.M. I imagined, due to the things I’d read about the book prior to reading it, that it was a sort of exposé, something that was hitherto covered up until the death of particular parties involved.

That assumption was both right and wrong. It was about Henry, a little, but more than anything, it was a story about the lengths scientists would go to all in the name of science to learn more about the inner workings of the human brain.

Henry Molaison was a 27 year old man with severe epilepsy and little quality of life, who was referred to William Beecher Scoville, the author’s maternal grandfather, for a bilateral medial temporal lobotomy to hopefully cure it. During the procedure, Scoville (nicknamed ‘Wild Bill’ among colleagues), used electric stimulation to attempt to pinpoint the area in the brain that caused Henry’s seizures, allowing him to remove only that specific area. However, no responses to the stimuli were made known, and Scoville had a choice to make: ‘do no harm,’ stitch him up, and send him home -or- go ahead with the lobotomy, with all the known side-effects and risks associated with it and hope that maybe it would help.

While it isn’t known exactly what Scoville was thinking in that moment, Dittrich describes Scoville’s interest in the inner workings of the brain and its influence on memory, temperament, and psychosis. The author gives us a full background on the rise in popularity of the lobotomy and how his grandfather became one of the most preeminent surgeons to perform them and study their effects. Prior to Henry, the only human patients that lobotomies had been performed on were those suffering from mental illness and psychosis, making it difficult at times to determine the exact effect the surgery had on patients since many were unable to communicate due to their various mental illnesses (and due to what passed for the treatment of those illnesses at that time, like hydrotherapy, pyretotherapy aka fever therapy, or shock therapy).

My grandmother was not the only asylum guest who was afraid of the shock treatment. The fear had become so pervasive, leading to so many disturbances and breakdowns among the patient population, the Burlingame had mounted a campaign to eliminate it.

Not the shock treatment. The fear.

The idea of a mentally fit test subject would have been hard to resist. Was Scoville hoping to truly help Henry, or was he looking for the perfect research subject, one who could communicate effectively and would help advance the science of the brain? It’s hard to know for sure, but the result is the same.

That was the day that Henry Molaison became Patient H.M.

Over the next 55 years, Henry would be widely studied by researchers playing a starring role in theories of brain function, memory, cognitive processes and more. Even after his death in 2008, Henry’s contributions to brain science are still producing the research community with plenty of material, as his brain was donated to MIT after his death.

The questionable ethics of the most primary figures of this book, Scoville and Suzanne Corkin (the lead researcher with MIT for the majority of H.M.’s life), as well as that of the entire field of study from its inception, are brought to light based on interviews and research presented by Dittrich in his book. In fact, this book caused quite a stir in the medical research community after it was published, and MIT issued a rebuttal of facts, which were then rebutted by Dittrich with recorded interviews proving his original statements.

For fans of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and those who have an interest in medical history and/or research, particularly as it relates to the injustice that medical science has perpetuated on the marginalized members of our society, I highly recommend this book. The author DOES use quite a bit of medical science jargon that admittedly went over my head at times, but it wasn’t anything a quick Google search couldn’t illuminate.

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