Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secretsby Luke Dittrich
“Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King”* in this propulsive, haunting journey into the life of the most studied human research subject of all time, the amnesic known as Patient H.M., a man who forever altered our understanding of how memory works—and whose treatment raises deeply unsettling questions about the human cost of scientific progress. For readers of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks comes a story that has much to teach us about our relentless pursuit of knowledge.
*Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST AND NPR
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.
Praise for Patient H.M.
“An exciting, artful blend of family and medical history.”—The New York Times
“In prose both elegant and intimate, and often thrilling, Patient H.M. is an important book about the wages not of sin but of science.”—The Washington Post
“Spellbinding . . . The fact that Dittrich looks critically at the actual process of scientific investigation is just one of the things to admire about Patient H.M.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Patient H.M. tells one of the most fascinating and disturbing stories in the annals of medicine, weaving in ethics, philosophy, a personal saga, the history of neurosurgery, the mysteries of human memory, and an exploration of human ego.”—Sheri Fink, M.D., Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Five Days at Memorial
“Dittrich explores the limits of science and the mind. In the process, he rescues an iconic life from oblivion. Dittrich is well aware that while we are the sum of what we may remember, we’re also at the mercy of what we can forget. This is classic reporting and myth-making at the same time.”—Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin
In this courageous mix of scientific investigation and memoir, journalist Dittrich recounts the life of Henry Molaison (1926–2008), an epileptic man hailed by many as the most important human research subject in the history of neuroscience. A 1953 operation by Yale neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville (1906–1984), Dittrich’s grandfather, on Molaison’s hippocampus left the 27-year-old without memory, in a world where “every day is alone in itself.” The story of “what led my grandfather to make those devastating, enlightening cuts,” Dittrich writes, “is a dark one, full of the sort of emotional and physical pain, and fierce desires, that Patient H.M. himself couldn’t experience.” And he unravels it by documenting the decades-long studies Molaison’s extraordinary amnesia spawned and the researchers he would inspire and confound. Those threads are woven around the history of neurosurgery—including the professional infighting that can obscure the legacy of scientific advances and failures, the torturous mid-20th-century treatment of the mentally ill, and the rise and fall of lobotomies. At the heart of this breathtaking work, however, is Dittrich’s story of his complicated grandfather, his mentally ill grandmother, and a long-held family secret, with Molaison stranded “where the past and the future were nothing but indistinct blurs.” Agent: Sloan Harris, ICM. (Aug.)
“In prose both elegant and intimate, and often thrilling, Patient H.M. is an important book about the wages not of sin but of science. It is deeply reported and surprisingly emotional, at times poignant, at others shocking. . . . A scintillating book, infused with humanity.”—The Washington Post
“Spellbinding . . . The fact that Dittrich looks critically at the actual process of scientific investigation is just one of the things to admire about Patient H.M.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Astonishingly insightful . . . A fascinating story in its own right to anyone interested in the history of modern science’s attempts to understand the causes of mental illness along with the many botched attempts to treat it . . . [Patient H.M.] is indeed about memory, madness, and family secrets and, in that sense, about the paths that shape the core of the self, in each and every one of us.”—Psychology Today
“Beautifully told . . . a book that will rank with Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in the realm of outstanding medical ethics narratives.”—Associated Press
“Dittrich’s account raises entirely new questions about the way in which the research on H.M. was conducted—and about the conclusions that have long been incorporated into our understanding of memory.”—New York Magazine
“Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King in a piercing study of one of psychiatric medicine’s darker hours. . . . A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“At the heart of this breathtaking work . . . is [Luke] Dittrich’s story of his complicated grandfather, his mentally ill grandmother, and a long-held family secret, with Molaison stranded ‘where the past and the future were nothing but indistinct blurs.’”—Publisher’s Weekly, starred review
“The machinations of scientists and researchers—their personality and ambition, power and hubris—are of equally vital (and cautionary) importance in Dittrich’s unusual and compelling mix of science and family history.”—Booklist, starred review
“Patient H.M. tells one of the most fascinating and disturbing stories in the annals of medicine, weaving in ethics, philosophy, a personal saga, the history of neurosurgery, the mysteries of human memory, and an exploration of human ego. A monumental contribution to our understanding of medical research, and of ourselves, Patient H.M. is sweeping, meticulous, and seamless—with an ending that, like the best of scientific investigations, challenges everything that came before it.”—Sheri Fink, M.D., Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Five Days at Memorial
“In Patient H.M., Luke Dittrich explores the limits of science and the mind. In the process, he rescues an iconic life from oblivion. Dittrich is well aware that while we are the sum of what we may remember, we’re also at the mercy of what we can forget. This is classic reporting and myth-making at the same time.”—Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin
“Luke Dittrich has achieved something remarkable in Patient H.M. This book succeeds on every level: as a fresh look at the most famous patient in medical history, as an exposé of our dark history of psychiatry and neurosurgery, and, most powerfully, as a deeply personal investigation into the author’s past. And yet it’s still a page-turner that reads like a thriller. It deserves a spot next to the great medical histories The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Ghost Map, and The Emperor of All Maladies.”—Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire
“It felt as if I read this book in one breath. Patient H.M. is a fascinating, powerful investigation, a matryoshka doll of nested stories about the past and present, remembering and forgetting. Luke Dittrich’s quest to understand the amnesic patient who taught the world so much about memory leads him to the shoals of his own family tragedy and an ending that will break your heart. But it’s his beautiful unfolding of the story, the art of his sentences and reportage, that you’ll never forget.”—Michael Paterniti, author of The Telling Room
Dittrich, a journalist and Esquire contributing editor, weaves the threads of many interconnected stories. There's the account of Dittrich's grandfather William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon in the early days of the field, and his patient Henry Gustave Molaison (known as patient H.M.). In 1953, Scoville removed both of the medial temporal lobes from Molaison's brain in an attempt to cure severe epilepsy. The man's short-term memory was destroyed, and he spent the next 50 years participating in experiments that greatly illuminated our current understanding of how memory works in the brain. There's also the story of Scoville's wife, Emily, Dittrich's grandmother, whose mental illness, the author speculates, played a role in Scoville's relentless drive and ambition—causing him to seek morally ambiguous surgical fixes for such ailments. Connecting all the threads is Dittrich's own life story, his voice tying together the various components. The narrative structure is undoubtedly complicated; however, in Dittrich's hands the elements connect and create an arc that doubles back, takes many unexpected turns, and contains hidden treasures much like the complexities of the human brain. VERDICT Combining memoir, biography, and science writing, Dittrich has written a fascinating and at times deeply disturbing account of the history of psychosurgery that's accessible to the layperson.—Ragan O'Malley, Saint Ann's Sch., Brooklyn
Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King in a piercing study of one of psychiatric medicine's darker hours.Well known for recent takedowns of psychic charlatans, Esquire contributing editor Dittrich expands a feature story there to point an accusing finger at the old practices of lobotomy, electroshock, and other supposed therapies for mental illness. His accusation lands squarely on his own grandfather, a pioneer in the use of surgery to treat mental illness. "None would perform as many lobotomies as Freeman," he writes of another leading doctor of the day, "who was as prolific as he was passionate. My grandfather, however, would come in a close second." The problem was, no one in that day was sure why cutting into the frontal lobes had the effects it did or, indeed, how the brain really ticked. Dittrich's story begins and ends, in frightening, graphic detail, with an unfortunate young boy who suffered an injury to his brain, which "sloshed forward in its watery womb, pushing up against the thin membrane of the pia mater and the thicker membranes of the arachnoid and dura mater, its weight compressing them all until it crashed against the unyielding barrier of his skull." Surgery did not help; indeed, medical intervention played a role in what would become a textbook case of amnesia, made all the more tragic because the patient could not form new memories and could not remember who his aging mother was except against the index of the long-ago picture he held of her as a young woman, part of the "eternal limbo to which my grandfather's operation had sentenced him." Dittrich's riveting tale turns up numerous other surprises, including a battle among academic giants over the ownership of the poor patient's brain and a skeleton in the family closet involving, almost literally, a mad woman in the attic. Though long, there's not a wasted word in the book, which should make readers glad we live in the age of Prozac and not the scalpel. A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation.
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)
Meet the Author
Luke Dittrich is a National Magazine Award–winning journalist, and a contributing editor at Esquire. This is his first book.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
I have to admit, when I bought this book I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I suppose I thought it would be a biography of either Patient H.M. or the author's grandfather, Dr, Scoville (or perhaps a.mishmash of both). What I got however, is an interesting combination of biography, scientific investigation, ethical examination, and study related to the reliability of memory itself. The subject matter of this book spans decades and moves delicately between familial secrets, the changing course of psychosurgery (and its many players) and into the politics of intellectual capital. If you are in the least bit interested.in the topic, I can't recommend it enough!
Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich is a very highly recommended account of his grandfather, Dr. William Beecher Scoville, an early brain surgeon, and his most famous patient, Henry Molaison. If you were mesmerized by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, you won't want to miss Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich. Investigative journalist Luke Dittrich covers not only the story of Henry Molaison, an epileptic man who is considered one of the most important neuroscience human research subjects; he also explores the history of neurosurgery and lobotomies, and his own family history. Along the way ethical questions are raised regarding the treatment of Henry, famously only known as Patient H.M. for years, and how proprietorial researchers are on sharing information. Henry and his family agreed to brain surgery in order to stop the debilitating epileptic seizures he was having. While it did stop the seizures, it also causes short term amnesia. Henry could no longer remember any new information or form any new long term memories. After this he became Patient H.M., one of the most studied individuals over a span of decades, but also one whose identity was closely guarded. Dittrich takes the facts of Patient H. M. and early neurosurgery and makes the story personal. His grandfather was a pioneer in the field and the one to perform the surgery on Henry, but Dittrich also tells of his mentally-ill grandmother, and a family secret. In Patient H.M. the author takes an extremely interesting piece of history and makes it even more compelling because of the personal connection Dittrich has to it, while describing the limbo Henry found himself in, with no ties to recent memories. The writing is very good and this nonfiction account reads like a novel. I was immersed in Dittrick's family history, as well as the story of Henry himself and the history of neurosurgery. The legal fights over Henry's body and the ending was, well, stunning. You have to read this book which is sure to be in the top nonfiction of the year. Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.
Patient HM Drowning in details This is not a book about Patient HM (Henry G. Molaison). It is a book about the history of brain surgery to cure epilepsy, lobotomies and the study of the brain. That, in itself, could make a good book but in this case, the author’s diligent research got in the way of telling the story. Just because the research was extensive, doesn’t mean the author had to use every detail he uncovered. I was very intrigued from the start as the story focused on Henry as a child who had a terrible accident that later, may have caused him to have frequent seizures. Henry underwent brain surgery by Dr. William Scoville, the author’s grandfather. Dr. Scoville removed portions of Henry’s brain based on a hunch that he knew the areas that were causing Henry’s seisures. I wanted to get to know Henry and also Dr. Scoville’s wife who spent time in an asylum for her mental issues. I never got to know these people. I don’t feel I ever knew Henry even though the book was supposedly about him. I never understood his personality and even though it was told he had a very high IQ, we were not told how Henry appeared to the world. There were extensive interviews where the reader could view his responses but I never felt I knew what he was like. At one point the author told part of the story of Dr. Scoville’s wife and I got the feeling he would at some point finish her story but frankly, I was so overwhelmed in all the details, the dates, the institutions, the people, the laboratories the universities, that at times I would skim many pages at a time, so I could have missed the continuing story of Mrs. Scoville. She was in an institution where Dr. Scoville often performed lobotomies and I wanted to know if he performed surgery on her. Another let down was that I wanted to understand how all the research on Henry Molaison throughout his life lead to a better understanding of the brain and and memory function. I’m sure that information is buried in the book somewhere. This could have been so much better.
Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich is a book about the history of brain surgery in general but I was more hoping it was about the patient HM. The writing was excellent and the information of the history of the the various treatments used on people with "mental illness" was interesting and appalling at the same time but very little was about this particular patient really. There was a great deal about the authors family, other patients, POW's, etc. It was very interesting but just a little misleading in the title. I received this book from NetGalley for a honest review.
"Patient H.M." is a beautifully and lyrically written work of nonfiction about H.M., the history of medicine and neuroscience, the doctors who treated H.M. and the author's own life (the author is the grandson of the doctor who treated H.M.). All medical, science, and psychology students know the immortal patient H.M. whose experiences taught us so much about the brain and memory. As a doctoral student, I remember hearing about the death of H.M. and learning his identity in awe of this individual who had given so much to science despite his unfortunate circumstances. Later, as researchers began preserving and slicing his brain, we were able to view over webcam the careful process. This book is a necessary accompaniment to the textbook description of H.M. The respect for patient H.M. is enormous as we would not be where we are today without the knowledge he has kindly helped us to attain. Dittrich writes about H.M. in depth, discussing his past and his conversations with researchers, as well as information about the brain and history of what we know to compete the story. Indeed, I believe this book will become a staple for anyone who wishes to learn about memory and a necessary book in many college courses. The inclusion of stories about Dittrich and his grandfather flesh out the book to keep readers engaged and interested in all aspects of the story of H.M. including the doctors and scientists who worked with him. This book is written in an approachable and understandable way. I think even non-science majors will find it interesting and educational. It is a must for scientists and those in the medical field. Please note that I received this book from netgalley in exchange for my honest review.
Loved it and was horrified by it.
Patient H.M. is a fascinating work of nonfiction in which author Luke Dittrich delves into the history of brain science, particularly the various lobotomies being performed in the 1930’s and beyond. Dittrich’s grandfather, William Scoville was one of the most well-known advocates of the lobotomy performing countless ones himself on mental asylum patients with issues ranging from schizophrenia to mild depression. Dittrich centers the story on a particular patient, Patient H.M., otherwise known as Henry Molaison, who was not from the asylum but sought help for his epilepsy. Dittrich’s grandfather performed a lobotomy on Molaison in an effort to stop the seizures Molaison had suffered since a childhood bike accident. Unable to locate the area of the brain that the seizures originated from, Scoville performed a more invasive lobotomy. The results of which appear to have left Molaison with a severe form of amnesia, unable to make new memories after the surgery. Though the title is Patient H.M., the book delves heavily into the types of lobotomy being performed, the lack of choice that patients from asylum had and the other crazy procedures performed in an effort to “cure” them of their psychological issues. It is of note that Dr. Scoville’s own wife, Dittrich’s grandmother, was among those put in an asylum as she suffered delusions herself. The accounts of treatments like instances of putting patients into a diabetic or drug induced shock and then coma to reset their minds, is shocking and the lobotomies hardly seem a better option. Dittrich opens a page into a lesser known and rather horrifying chapter of medical science here in America and does so in a way that a layperson can understand and follow. My one issue with this book was that, at times, it jumped around in a way that didn’t work well with the subject matter. Usually there were attempted tie-ins to the subject and the tangents were well written, but it felt like Dittrich was stretching the connections of his tangent to the subject. For example, at one point he randomly decided to discuss his grandfather climbing the George Washington Bridge and then linked it to Dittrich himself climbing the The Great Pyramid in Egypt and his foray into writing. All fascinating stuff but not really relevant to the story at hand unless used as the Intro. Odd tangents aside though, this book is a well-researched and multi-faceted work of nonfiction with a remarkably readable and beautifully flowing writing style. It isn’t light reading, but it also doesn’t stray into dry scholarly prose. The result is an engaging and informative history of treatments used unnervingly recently for issues within the brain. An engrossing read. Disclaimer: I received a free ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.