Patient H.m.: A Story Of Memory, Madness, And Family Secrets

Hardcover | August 9, 2016

byLuke Dittrich

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“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

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.

Praise for Patient H.M.

“An exciting, artful blend of family and medical history.”The New York Times

“In prose both elegant and intimate, and often thrilling, Patient H.M. is an important book about the wages not of sin but of science.”The Washington Post

“Spellbinding . . . The fact that Dittrich looks critically at the actual process of scientific investigation is just one of the things to admire about Patient H.M.”—The New York Times Book Review

Patient H.M. tells one of the most fascinating and disturbing stories in the annals of medicine, weaving in ethics, philosophy, a personal saga, the history of neurosurgery, the mysteries of human memory, and an exploration of human ego.”—Sheri Fink, M.D., Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Five Days at Memorial

“This is classic reporting and myth-making at the same time.”—Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin

*Kirkus Reviews
 (starred review)

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From the Publisher

“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. Wils...

Luke Dittrich is a National Magazine Award–winning journalist, and a contributing editor at Esquire. This is his first book.
Format:HardcoverDimensions:464 pages, 9.6 × 6.4 × 1.38 inPublished:August 9, 2016Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0812992733

ISBN - 13:9780812992731

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Bookclub Guide

1. Do you think the psychosurgeons like Dittrich's grandfather thought they were doing good – applying their surgical expertise to alleviate suffering -- or were they driven more by the thrill of experimentation and the hunger for knowledge? 2. What is the difference between medical practice and medical research? Should there always be a strict line dividing the two?3. If you were the parent of a child like H.M., debilitated by his epilepsy and seemingly beyond treatment, and you went to visit a doctor who said he could perform an experimental brain surgery that might make your child’s life better, what would you have done?4. Do you think all of the post-operative research conducted of HM was ethical? Do you think he understood what was being done to him, and was capable of providing informed consent?5. Should patients like H.M. be entitled to some form of reparations for the surgeries that were performed on them?6. The author investigates his own grandmother's history of mental illness, and reveals to the reader some of the most secret and painful episodes of her life. Do you think he was right to do so, or was this a violation of his grandmother's privacy?7. The majority of the people who were lobotomized in the psychosurgical era were women – women who weren’t docile enough, who were depressed, or who were "preoccupied with sex thoughts." Why do you think that is?8. Many asylum superintendents used to give psychosurgeons unlimited access to their "psychiatric material," by which they meant the residents of their asylums. What made this particular population of patients so vulnerable to exploitation?9. Are there things you think doctors are doing today that we will look back on in fifty years and say, “How did we possibly think that was a good, or ethical, thing to do?”10. Conversely, have modern advances made it difficult to view the past in a clear light? Has Dittrich been fair to the men of his grandfather's generation, who were operating and experimenting without the benefit of all we know today? 11. What do you think H.M. was aware of, day to day? Did you come away feeling like he lived in the moment and was more or less happy, or do you think he was aware that an essential part of his self had been lost? 12. Did this book make you think differently about memory, and who and what we would be without it?13. How would you describe the author’s grandfather, Dr. Scoville – his motivations, his morality, his sense of obligation to his patients? What do you think drove him? 14. How would you describe the relationship between Dr. Suzanne Corkin and H.M.?15. Are there heroes in this book? If so, who are they?16. Many great advances in human understanding have been built on the back of troubling human experimentation. How do you reconcile the lifetime of hardship that H.M. endured with the body of knowledge he gave to the world?17. Put yourself in the author’s shoes, for a moment. You come to understand that your grandfather's surgical experimentation created the most studied patient in the history of brain science. You also come to understand that your grandfather was, in moral and ethical terms, a deeply complex and flawed character. Could you have written about your family in this way?

Editorial Reviews

“An exciting, artful blend of family and medical history.”—The New York Times“In prose both elegant and intimate, and often thrilling, Patient H.M. is an important book about the wages not of sin but of science. It is deeply reported and surprisingly emotional, at times poignant, at others shocking. . . . A scintillating book, infused with humanity.”—The Washington Post   “Spellbinding . . . The fact that Dittrich looks critically at the actual process of scientific investigation is just one of the things to admire about Patient H.M.”—The New York Times Book Review   “Astonishingly insightful . . . A fascinating story in its own right to anyone interested in the history of modern science’s attempts to understand the causes of mental illness along with the many botched attempts to treat it . . . [Patient H.M.] is indeed about memory, madness, and family secrets and, in that sense, about the paths that shape the core of the self, in each and every one of us.”—Psychology Today“Beautifully told . . . a book that will rank with Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in the realm of outstanding medical ethics narratives.”—Associated Press   “Dittrich’s account raises entirely new questions about the way in which the research on H.M. was conducted—and about the conclusions that have long been incorporated into our understanding of memory.”—New York Magazine   “Remarkable.”—Wired“Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King in a piercing study of one of psychiatric medicine’s darker hours. . . . A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review) “At the heart of this breathtaking work . . . is [Luke] 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.’”—Publisher’s Weekly, starred review    “The machinations of scientists and researchers—their personality and ambition, power and hubris—are of equally vital (and cautionary) importance in Dittrich’s unusual and compelling mix of science and family history.”—Booklist, starred review“Patient H.M. tells one of the most fascinating and disturbing stories in the annals of medicine, weaving in ethics, philosophy, a personal saga, the history of neurosurgery, the mysteries of human memory, and an exploration of human ego. A monumental contribution to our understanding of medical research, and of ourselves, Patient H.M. is sweeping, meticulous, and seamless—with an ending that, like the best of scientific investigations, challenges everything that came before it.”—Sheri Fink, M.D., Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Five Days at Memorial “In Patient H.M., Luke Dittrich explores the limits of science and the mind. In the process, he rescues an iconic life from oblivion. Dittrich is well aware that while we are the sum of what we may remember, we’re also at the mercy of what we can forget. This is classic reporting and myth-making at the same time.”—Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin   “Luke Dittrich has achieved something remarkable in Patient H.M. This book succeeds on every level: as a fresh look at the most famous patient in medical history, as an exposé of our dark history of psychiatry and neurosurgery, and, most powerfully, as a deeply personal investigation into the author’s past. And yet it’s still a page-turner that reads like a thriller. It deserves a spot next to the great medical histories The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Ghost Map, and The Emperor of All Maladies.”—Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire   “It felt as if I read this book in one breath. Patient H.M. is a fascinating, powerful investigation, a matryoshka doll of nested stories about the past and present, remembering and forgetting. Luke Dittrich’s quest to understand the amnesic patient who taught the world so much about memory leads him to the shoals of his own family tragedy and an ending that will break your heart. But it’s his beautiful unfolding of the story, the art of his sentences and reportage, that you’ll never forget.”—Michael Paterniti, author of The Telling Room