August 09, 2016

Luke Dittrich

The painful truth behind a medical tragedy
As an award-winning journalist, Luke Dittrich has investigated topics ranging from near-death experiences to atomic-bomb testing. But there was one story he was especially eager to explore: the role of his own grandfather in one of the most controversial cases in the history of neuroscience.
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As an award-winning journalist, Luke Dittrich has investigated topics ranging from near-death experiences to atomic-bomb testing. But there was one story he was especially eager to explore: the role of his own grandfather in one of the most controversial cases in the history of neuroscience.

In 1953, Dittrich’s grandfather, neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville, operated on a young man experiencing severe seizures, removing part of the patient’s brain and leaving him with profound amnesia for the rest of his life. Dittrich reconstructs this dark chapter of medicine in Patient H.M., following the threads of his own family history to reveal what might have motivated Scoville’s fascination with the brain.

Why did you decide to write about Patient H.M.?
The case of Patient H.M. has fascinated me ever since I first heard about it. I think it would have even if there weren’t a family connection. Memory, amnesia, human experimentation . . . So many rich themes. The personal connection—my grandfather performed the experimental brain operation that transformed Henry Molaison into Patient H.M.—tipped it from fascinating into irresistible. For almost as long as I’ve been a writer, I’ve wanted to take on this story.

You say that writing this story has taken you "down a number of dark alleys" in your family's history. At any point did you have second thoughts about revealing some of your discoveries? Have any family members expressed reservations or objections?
Right after I got my book deal, I phoned my mom to let her know. She’s always been my biggest fan, and hugely supportive, but these were the first words out of her mouth: “Oh no.” And that was long before I uncovered some of the most troubling information in my book. Investigating my own family history, dragging old skeletons out of closets, was hard. I tell myself that the story is worth telling, despite the pain I know it will cause. What that says about me, I don’t know.

No doubt your grandmother's mental illness deepened your grandfather's interest in the mysteries of the brain. Her sudden suicide attempt when her children were so young was obviously startling for all, especially your grandfather. Were you aware of her health battles when you started this project?
I knew she struggled with mental illness, yes. But my understanding of the particulars was hazy, murky. Researching the book made me confront both the depths of her illness and the terrible “treatments” provided to her while she was institutionalized. My grandmother died a few years ago, at the age of 101. She was a beloved and highly private person. Shining a spotlight on the worst years of her life is a decision I’ve wrestled with.

If you could talk to your grandfather today, what would you ask him about Patient H.M.? And how do you think he would feel about your book?
I’d want to know what he was thinking, in the operating room, when he made that historic decision to remove those slivers of Henry’s brain. What was the balance between his desire to help Henry, and his desire to learn from Henry? There’s only so much I, or anyone, can understand about another human being’s motivations, from the outside looking in. That said, we’re often ciphers even to ourselves, so I doubt even having a chance to speak with him would have necessarily resolved that mystery.

I can’t imagine he would have liked my book.

You draw some interesting parallels about separate experiences you and your grandfather had, noting that both of you tried your hand at bullfighting, and that both of you ended up perched high in the air in memorable, unusual spots. Do you think the two of you share any personality traits?
I think he and I shared a taste for risky behavior. That said, the differences between us are significant. Chief among them: He saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. I’ve saved none. I try to keep that in mind.

Has this project changed your feelings about your grandfather?
In a strange way, researching my grandfather’s role in the history of memory science has had an effect on my memories of my grandfather. Today, thinking back on Thanksgiving dinners as a child, with my grandfather at the head of the table, I can’t help but think about all the unspoken secrets that may have lurked just beneath the surface. It casts a dark filter over memories that were once sunny. That’s one of the things modern memory science has taught us: Memories are malleable things, always in flux.

What do you hope your book will accomplish?
Henry Molaison was neurologically incapable of telling his own story. Instead, his story has usually been told (and in many ways owned) by the people who’ve built their careers studying him. I hope my book liberates Henry’s story from the researchers who’ve had an interest in telling it in a particular way. Henry’s story is important not just for what it can teach us about memory, but for what it can teach us about humanity, ethics, and our own sometimes ruthless pursuit of knowledge.

It's remarkable that your mother's closest childhood friend, Dr. Suzanne Corkin, became a neuroscientist whose research focused on your grandfather's most famous patient. But the amount of control she exerted over Patient H.M. seems to have been potentially excessive. Were you surprised when she wouldn't let you meet him? Were she and your mother still in touch?
That connection between my mom and Corkin is such a strange element of this whole thing. I knew Corkin ever since I was a kid. She was a regular at my mom’s dinner parties. Yes, I was surprised when she wouldn’t let me meet Henry unless I signed a document giving Corkin and MIT editorial control over anything I wanted to write about him. My mom and Corkin remained close, though my working on this book definitely put a strain on their relationship. Sadly, Corkin passed away while the book was in galleys.

Dr. Corkin published her own book in 2013, and you say she had a movie deal as well. Did she feel threatened by the fact that you, too, were writing a book?
I have no idea. I would say that our books are very different, and that her book brings its own useful perspective to Henry’s story. 

Dr. Corkin died in May, having previously told you that she planned to shred her research files. Do you have any idea whether she did?
What she told me is that she had already shredded most of Henry’s raw data, and that she thought she would shred more of it in the future. I did recently ask MIT for comment, but they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) shed more light on the matter.

What happened after Henry Molaison's death is just as intriguing as what came before. Is your book likely to provoke further controversy?
I think it’s already begun to, as a result of an excerpt that recently ran in the New York Times Magazine. That controversy is healthy, I believe. Questions need to be asked. Also, I hope that some of the other researchers who worked with Henry over the decades, and who held on to their own collections of Henry’s data, might now be motivated to pool that data, and have it archived and indexed, to preserve what’s left.

Your descriptions of the post-mortem dissection and study of Henry's brain and others are fascinating. Have you considered donating your own brain to science?
I do have that little organ-donor stamp on my driver’s license, but apparently that only covers our lesser organs, not the brain. I like to think I would donate my brain, yes, though for some reason the thought of actually doing so does give me pause. Also, my brain, unlike Henry’s, isn’t particularly interesting.

This story seems ripe for a movie. Can you imagine who might play the roles of your grandfather and his famous patient?
That's really fun to think about, but I don't want to get ahead of myself!

Author photo © Matt Moyer

Get the Book

Patient H.M.

Patient H.M.

By Luke Dittrich
Random House
ISBN 9780812992731

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