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

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

A change of pace, off topic, take your pick in describing today’s brief post. It’s August, after all, so I feel justified in taking a mini-vacation from the financial markets. And Luke Dittrich’s Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets(Random House), released earlier this month, is a captivating book.

In the popular history of neuroscience two patient names stand out. First, Phineas Gage (1823-1860), who, as one writer described him, “had a metal rod blown through his head and lived to get cranky about it.” Gage’s personality changed radically, and not for the better, after the accident. Second, Henry Gustav Molaison (1926-2008), known simply as Patient H.M., who, after a lobotomy to control his epilepsy, could no longer commit new events to his explicit memory. He was a hollowed out human being. But he became the subject of intense scientific study. Psychologists researching the formation of memories had in Patient H.M. a classic case study in how “the broken illuminate the unbroken.”

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Luke Dittrich is the grandson of Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the surgeon who performed the lobotomy on H.M. and countless others, including, as it turns out late in the book, his own wife. Scoville proselytized for psychosurgery and especially for lobotomies. In performing lobotomies, he found “a way to unite his passion for tinkering and his interest in experimental surgery.”

Scoville, known to medical residents as “Wild Bill,” pushed the boundaries of medicine, to the point that the line between his work as a doctor and his work as a scientist eventually became “impossibly blurred.” The pretext of healing mentally ill patients gave him cover to carry out surgical experiments. ‘Pretext’ may be too strong a word, but there was scant evidence that lobotomies were beneficial to the thousands of patients who underwent them. Scoville’s surgery was not quite the stuff of the Nuremberg trials, but it was ethically sketchy nonetheless.

Patient one of those books you can’t put down, and also one you can’t forget.