By Luke Dittrich
Published by Random House
Reviewed by Ally Barber, an intern for Dreaming Big Publications
ABOUT THE BOOK
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.
5 out of 5 stars
Despite the innumerable innovations and discoveries that science has made over the centuries, the brain continues to be a mystery. Though scientists are able to understand many of the processes that take place in the most important organ, the knowledge that they have is relatively small. In fact, many of the things we now know about the brain we have learned from studying brains that did not work, rather than brains that operate correctly. How the brain stores and creates memory is a mystery all on its own and has fascinated the field of neuroscience for many years. In Luke Dittrich’s Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets, the reader is given an insight into the life of the most studied individual in the history of neuroscience, a man who was unable to form new memories after he received a lobotomy meant to help his epilepsy.
Luke Dittrich’s Patient H.M. is completely fascinating. The work is a captivating look into the world of neuroscience today, fifty years ago, and in centuries past. It delves into the ethical and moral issues of controversial brain surgery and uses this frame as a means to look at human nature and the consequences of actions. Almost everyone knows that memory creates who we are. We are an amalgamation of our past experiences and choices. So, if we are unable to create new memories, then what does that make us? Who are we? Who could we become? Is there a means by which to develop and grow? Dittrich’s look into the life of Patient H.M. – Henry Molaison – attempts in a way to answer these questions while his examination of his own grandfather, the surgeon who performed the lobotomy that changed Henry’s life completely, is an attempt to humanize a man who could easily be vilified for his part in a surgery that today is seen as both extremely controversial and a remnant of a more ignorant time. Overall, Patient H.M. is a wonderfully written and fascinating look into the science of memory and the brain itself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Luke Dittrich has been working as a journalist since 1997, and his on-the-job experiences have included running a marathon in Antarctica and walking 340 miles along the United States/Mexico border He is a contributing editor at Esquire, and his articles have appeared in a variety of anthologies including Best American Crime Writing, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Science and Nature Writing. A Story he wrote about the survivors of a devastating Missouri tornado won the 2012 National Magazine Award for feature writing. This is his first book.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for writing a review. I was not required to write a positive review, and all opinions are my own.