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Winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award - Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
The Washington Post - New York Post - NPR - The Economist - New York - Wired - Kirkus Reviews - BookPage
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
"This is classic reporting and myth-making at the same time."--Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin
*Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-06-06
- Reviewer: Staff
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.)
A breakthrough in the study of the brain
If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you’ll love Patient H.M.: Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. Not only is this new book an endlessly fascinating account of medical history, but the author, Esquire contributing editor Luke Dittrich, has a deeply personal connection to the story.
In the early 1930s in Hartford, Connecticut, a bicyclist zoomed down a hill and hit a boy who had just stepped into the road. That collision was the likely cause of severely debilitating epileptic seizures that began to plague young Henry Molaison. They were so crippling—and uncontrollable by drugs—that in 1953, his parents agreed to brain surgery for their then 27-year-old son.
Neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville removed most of Molaison’s medial temporal lobe, including his hippocampus. The patient’s seizures improved, but those “devastating and enlightening cuts” into his brain created a new problem: permanent amnesia. Unknowingly, Dr. Scoville had created “Patient H.M.,” who became one of the most important research subjects in neuroscience history. Though he died in 2008, his brain is still being studied, even sparking a custody battle between MIT and the University of California at San Diego.
Dittrich’s personal connection turns this already remarkable story into an extraordinary one: Dr. Scoville was his grandfather. Dittrich spent six years researching a saga fraught with family pitfalls. Scoville was a brilliant Yale professor with myriad accomplishments, but he was also a risk-taker whose love of cars and speed ultimately killed him. A man with a penchant for “fast results,” this gifted surgeon performed numerous lobotomies into the 1970s, well after they had largely gone out of fashion.
In riveting prose, Dittrich takes readers on an informative tour of everything from early mental illness treatments to neuroscience and neurosurgery. The result is a story filled with heartbreak and sweeping historical perspective.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with author Luke Dittrich.