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

by Luke Dittrich

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3212158,811 (3.8)13
"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)

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Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
At the age of seven young Henry Molaison stepped into the street and collided with a bicyclist. Following the accident he began suffering from increasingly frequent and severe epileptic seizures, leading ultimately to an experimental brain surgery performed by neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville. Unfortunately, the surgery was only partially successful with respect to his seizures and, tragically, the procedure left him unable to form any new memories for the remainder of his life. The author, journalist Luke Dittrich, just happens to be Scoville's grandson, and this is the story of the surprising number of ways his family intersects with that of the most famous patient in the history of neuroscience, as well as a primer on the history of the science itself.

This was an enlightening read, though it was far from a page-turner. The overall number of intersectionalities among the family, the patient, the neighborhood, and even President Lincoln, was pretty astonishing. Recommended for readers with an interest in science and medicine. ( )
  ryner | Dec 16, 2019 |
The topic of this book thrilled me to no end; mental health practices, lobotomies, asylums, and what patients (specifically patient H.M.) went through.
The writing style, however, was severely lacking.
Do you have that one friend that manages to find an interesting topic, but then proceeds to mangle the delivery and talk about it to death? That friend could have wrote this.
There were asides to asides that didn't add anything to the narrative, repetitive information every new section, very little about Henry Molaison, which the book was titled after, and long, drawn out paragraphs about what Dittrich assumed what had happened.
It is a shame, since I really wanted to learn more about this fascinating topic. Unfortunately, I couldn't get into this book at all.

Thank you to Netgalley for a copy in exchange for an unbiased review. ( )
  JPetersonReads | Dec 23, 2018 |
This was my #nonfiction pick for September. I love a good medical drama and this one did not disappoint. H.M. got a lobotomy in an attempt to cure epilepsy, but ended up unable to make new memories. Researched for over 50 years. The story of H.M. is interesting enough by itself, but then you have the added twist of the author's connection to the story. Really fascinating. Crazy how the whole thing is still wrapped up in controversy. ( )
  Aseleener | Mar 24, 2018 |
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.
------------------ Updated Review--------------------
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.
  CJ82487 | Mar 20, 2018 |
I can't put my figure on why I disliked this book. I will have to revisit it and see if I feel the same way. I believe it is the topic -- the section about the nazis... awful. I knew most of this material but it seemed much more graphic.

I am sorry the author had to write a book on such a grim topic. I hope he continues to write.

I should add I thank the author for writing this story.
I also recently read a book that horrified me... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Grandfather_Would_Have_Shot_Me.

It strikes home when family members are involved, but at least some doctors working with mentally ill were trying to help patients. ( )
  honkcronk | Aug 19, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
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Epigraph
Man is certainly no poorer as a experimental animal merely because he can talk.

Paul Bucy
Every day is alone in itself. Whatever enjoyment I've had, and whatever sorrow I've had.

Henry Molaison
Dedication
For Bambam, Lola, Laska, and Anwyn
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The laboratory at night, the lights down low.
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"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"--

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