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

by Luke Dittrich

Hardcover, 2016




Random House, (2016)


"In the summer of 1953, a renowned Yale neurosurgeon named William Beecher Scoville performed a novel operation on a 27-year-old epileptic patient named Henry Molaison, drilling two silver-dollar sized holes in his forehead and suctioning out a few teaspoons of tissue from a mysterious region deep inside his brain. The operation helped control Molaison's intractable seizures, but it also did something else: It left Molaison amnesic for the rest of his life, with a short term memory of just thirty seconds. Patient H.M., as he came to be known, would emerge as the most important human research subject in history. Much of what we now know about how memory works is a direct result of the sixty years of near-constant experimentation carried out upon him until his death in 2008. Award-winning journalist Luke Dittrich brings readers from the gleaming laboratory in San Diego where Molaison's disembodied brain -- now the focus of intense scrutiny -- sits today; to the surgical suites of the 1940s and 50s, where doctors wielded the powers of gods; and into the examination rooms where generations of researchers performed endless experiments on a single, essential, oblivious man: H.M.. In the process, Dittrich excavates the lives of Dr. Scoville and his most famous patient, and spins their tales together in thrilling, kaleidoscopic fashion, uncovering troves of well-guarded secrets, and revealing how the bright future of modern neuroscience has dark roots in the forgotten history of psychosurgery, raising ethical questions that echo into the present day"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Well-ReadNeck
Patient H.M. – Luke Dittrich

In 1953, Henry Molaison (patient H.M. of the title) underwent a lobotomy in an attempt to cure debilitating epilepsy. The operation, from Molaison’s point of view, was unsuccessful. He continued to suffer from seizures and, became an amnesiac, unable to develop new memories post-surgery. Molaison’s tragedy became science’s boon. Patient H.M. became the most studied subject in this history of neuroscience.

Patient H.M. has been touted as the next The Immortal Life of Henritta Lacks (because every book has to be the “next” something). And, there are certainly aspects of Rebecca Skloot’s fabulous book here. Like Henrietta Lacks, there are many ethical and medical concerns about the consent and treatment of Henry Molaison and his tissues post-mortem. And, like Henrietta Lacks, many scientific breakthroughs occurred thanks to a single patient. Skloot’s book about Lacks alternates between the science advancing thanks to HeLa cells and the story of Ms. Lacks herself and her family’s fight to preserve her dignity. Dittrich’s format, on the other hand, is much more disjointed and disorganized.

Dittrich’s hook is that he is the grandson of William Scoville, the surgeon who performed the lobotomy that left Henry Molaison without the ability to form new memories. Dittrich touches on many things here: the history of neuroscience and psychosurgery; his grandfather’s career; his grandmother’s mental illness and the life and times of the scientists that made their mark by studying Mr. Molaison.; and ultimately, post-mortem discoveries that may explain the particular plight of Mr. Molaison. While this book is chock-full of interesting information and stories, there are almost too many threads to keep the narrative on task. And, while this is a non-fiction book that clearly required a great deal of research, the finished product lacks clear citation and drifts often into what seems to be more personal narrative than journalistic reporting.

In spite of its flaws, this was an entertaining and educational book about both the author’s family and the history of brain science. Worthwhile reading for anyone interested in medical or scientific subjects or non-fiction readers.
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LibraryThing member Darcia
The appeal of this book reaches far beyond learning about patient H.M., though his story is indeed a fascinating centerpiece. The author's grandfather is the doctor who performed H.M.'s lobotomy, along with countless more lobotomies on patients who were not all willing participants in this experimental surgery.

This book is part memoir, as the author takes us into his own family history, with his grandmother's mental illness and his grandfather's myopic view of lobotomies as the treatment of choice for a wide variety of psychological and behavioral problems. We also learn about the politics of medical research, about the in-fighting and the proprietary treatment of a human as a research object. We see how loosely mental illness was defined in a time not so long ago, when women were expected to be compliant and subservient, and defiant children were locked away. And, of course, we learn about patient H.M., a man who lost the ability to retain any sort of memory after part of his brain was taken away.

Luke Dittrich does jump around a bit in the timeline, veering down paths with family memories in order to give us a clear understanding of the people and the time in history. I had no problem following his lead, though on occasion, particularly through the middle third of the book, it felt a little disjointed. Still, the information is well worth the effort to follow along.

The stories within this book bring with them the question of free will and freedom of choice. Should doctors and psychiatrists be allowed to surgically alter a mentally ill person, and who decides the parameters of those mental illnesses treated with such a permanent method? I personally was appalled by the freedom with which these doctors performed lobotomies, as well as the lack of oversight. Perhaps even more disturbing is the absence of regard for these patients as humans with rights. These people seemed to be nothing more than test subjects, and when a doctor screwed up and caused more damage to their brains, this was just a learning curve for the greater good.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of our medical and psychiatric health care system.

*I was provided with an advance ebook copy by the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.*
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LibraryThing member kara.shamy
This is a really fascinating read. I could hardly recommend Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets more highly. The author, with unparalleled boldness, takes on his own grandfather and other people he knows personally as he grapples with the issues raised by the treatment on the man who is the the titular main character of this work of non-fiction. My only complaint about the book is that I wish author Luke Dittrich would have pressed harder in rendering a negative judgment on the (I believe) inhumane treatment on this patient rather than simply raising the relevant issues.

I was able to read a free galley of this work through NetGalley and the gracious permission of the publisher. I thank my fellow readers for reading these thoughts and hope they prove somehow useful
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LibraryThing member c.archer
The brain and how it functions can be fascinating. The author does a good job of presenting this in a readable, albeit technical way. He is the grandson of an early pioneer in the treatment of mental illness surgically through lobotomy. Yet, his grandfather's most famous patient, Henry Molaison or H.M., was actually not a psych patient, but an epileptic. He became a human case study for the brain's function after he post-operatively became a total amnesiac. Although much information and education in learning about the functions in the various areas of the brain, as well as amnesia, was learned from Henry, it was at such a terrible cost for him.
While I enjoyed the book, I did expect that it would be focused more on the patient for which it is named. Other than an introduction as to who H.M. was, more than the first half of the book deals with the history of the surgeon and the introduction of the lobotomy and other brain surgeries in treating mental illness. Personally, I found some of this is to be a bit dry and lacking in basic language that general readers could understand. The book picked up quite a bit for me in the second half as the author begins to focus more on Henry and his life story. It was both interesting and tragic.
I thank the publisher and Netgalley for the opportunity to read and review this title.
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LibraryThing member mcdenis
Henry Gustave Molaison (b.1926) sometime in the 1930’ was knocked down by a bicyclist in Hartford Connecticut and suffered brain trauma. He became known as “patient H.M.” and was the case study for neuro-scientist-surgeons and others interested in the brain. Throughout the book, we are taken on a remarkable journey of the efforts of neuro-surgeons using pre-frontal lobotomy to cure mental illness and to locate where memory is activated. The author cites his personal family history. His grandfather performed the lobotomy on Henry. Lobotomy became a popular surgery and moved from the surgeon’s drill into the skull to an ice pick up through eye socket. There was generally a drastic effect in the patient’s behavior and not always the desired outcome. The scientists and researchers did not always agree and seemed to be in constant competition as documented by the author. The book is well worth reading and written in a comprehensive style of a very complex subject. It brought back personal memories as an undergraduate student in clinical Psychology and later as a caregiver of disturbed formerly professional individuals, one of whom was lobotomized.

I was provided with an electronic copy in return for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Overview of the life of HM, the anonymous patient (whose actual name was Henry Molineaux) whose ability to retain new memories was accidentally destroyed by surgical lobotomies of structures in both temporal lobes in a procedure (successful) to relieve frequent and severe epileptic seizures. While the surgery corrected a condition that prevented HM from leading a normal life, the new disability that it created was equally crippling.
The author is the grandson of the surgeon who performed the operation. He fleshes out the narrative with details on the lives of the surgeon and the surgeon's wife, who also underwent brain surgery to relieve crippling mental illness.
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LibraryThing member Jan.Coco.Day
This is not a medical text illuminating the secrets of the brain; it is an expose of ethics in human experimentation on mental health and epilepsy patients in the middle of the 20th century. The personal story of Dittrich’s grandfather tends to get buried under the history of brain research, which is informative, if not the promise made by the author.… (more)
LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
WOW-Best book I have read in a long time! A great combination of social history, psychology, academic intrigue, as well as how it all impacts the author's personal family experience. Highly readable, and very captivating.
LibraryThing member Kristymk18
This is the second or third book I've read because of the topic being mentioned in The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. I think I would have liked this more if I hadn't had previously read books similar to it. This non-fiction narrative intertwines the history of lobotomies with Dittrich's own neurosurgeon grandpa, his schizophrenic grandmother, and the post-lobotomized life of patient H.M

Every time I read one of these stories about how the medical field operated in the past (and probably in some ways still today) it shocks me. You'd think I'd be use to it by now, but hearing about how they used humans with mental illnesses and epilepsy and those who identified as homosexuals as guinea pigs appalled me. I know we learned a lot from it and we have to weigh the cost against the reward. (I will leave that up to the experts to decide if it was worth it.)

I do applaud Dittrich for seamlessly switching between each story line and bringing them all together to create an in depth look at neurosurgery.
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LibraryThing member AmyLC
I was riveted by this fascinating account of the history of medical treatments, notions of medical ethics and consent, academic infighting, a particular man's life and the impact of all of these on the writer's family.
LibraryThing member CJ82487
At 40%, I'm throwing in the towel. Perhaps, this just isn't the time for me to be reading this, or I set my expectations too high, but I have lost interest in this book and the desire to finish reading it. More information as to why will follow.
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I gave this one a good try, I did or at least feel like I did. At the 40% mark, I threw in the towel. Maybe my expectations were too high or maybe, this isn't a good time for me to be reading this (sometimes it's about timing books right), but I reached a point where I was no longer enjoying reading this, so this one is a DNF for me.

There was a lot of good writing in here, but I think what failed me is that at almost the halfway point, I knew zip about Henry Molaison. The little bit I knew could have been gathered from the synopsis.

What I did know was the author's grandmother had a history of mental illness and was institutionalized. I learned about mental asylums and the "therapies" they employed in an attempt to cure people. The history of neuropsychology was fascinating, but it isn't why I picked up the book.

I felt the same with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. There was a lot of interesting information and well-written to not come across as a medical textbook. Everything was explained clearly and understandable to the average reader with little to no medical knowledge, but who was Henry Molaison?

I kept reading hoping the next chapter would have more about him, but would only find more information about the lobotomy's crude beginnings and the advances made over time. When I did finally get another glimpse at H.M., it was brief. Then back to more history lessons on mental asylums.

At almost the halfway point, I have learned little to nothing about the man who was the reason I picked up the book. I expected to have some history lessons thrown in there, especially because the lobotomy that caused H.M.'s amnesia was not a rarity. I knew that a lot of the therapies experienced by patients during H.M.'s time were commonplace, but we now know did more harm than good. I was really interested in the fact that the author, Dittrich, was the grandson of the man who performed the lobotomy that changed H.M.'s life.

The writing is not poor, in fact, it is interesting. I struggled with whether or not to give this book 1 star or 2 because I didn't absolutely hate it. I just didn't finish it. With all of the other books I'm currently reading and want/need to read, this fell to the back-burner and I started to lack the desire to pick it back up.

Ultimately, I changed my rating to 2 stars because it is interesting, has finess to it that many medical-related books lack, and has a very interesting premise. It was just not the book for me. I think if I gave it another try in the future, I might be able to finish it without effort. Maybe not, but it was not constructed poorly and I didn't hate it. I just wanted more about Henry Molaison and less on the history of Dittrich's grandfather's rise to fame and neuropsychology/psychosurgeons.
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LibraryThing member DDJTJ1
PATIENT H.M. A STORY OF MEMORY,MADNESS & FAMILY SECRETS BY LUKE DITTRICH . When I chose this book from goodreads the blurb intrigued me. I had never heard of patient H.M & my curiosity was peaked. I am very happy I won this book from goodreads.

The authors grandfather, a famous neurosurgeon is the co subject of this book along with his patient H.M Henry Molaison we now know. This book is a combination memoir , medical science and in my opinion the gathering of how & why Dittrich's grandfather literally took the memory from patient HM. We find out that Dittrich's grandmother had mental health issues and ended up institutionalized at a time where electric shock therapy , steamy hot and freezing cold baths were some of the "treatments" to combat mental illness. We learn about HM, who as a child was hit by a bicycle thus starting the seizures that led to the doctor performing surgery on him.

I found that not only did I learn about the history of neurosurgery but the history of mental illness and the "cures". I found myself every evening turning the pages, delving into the life of not only HM but Mr.Dittrich's family & their secrets. I found this one of the most in-depth and intriguing memories I've every read.

i recieved this book from goodreads free in exchange for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member MontzaleeW
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member hhornblower
To me it was less of an early history of brain surgery and more of an example that significant educational and professional achievement does not mean that a person has not risen above the pettiness and self serving interests that human kind is heir to. A person built her career off of exploiting a amnesiac, that about sums it up.… (more)


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