“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. For readers of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks comes a story that has much to teach us about our relentless pursuit of knowledge.
Winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award • Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner
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.
“An exciting, artful blend of family and medical history.”—The New York Times
*Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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."