STARRED REVIEW
August 2016

A breakthrough in the study of the brain

By Luke Dittrich
Review by
If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you’ll love Patient H.M.: Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. Not only is this new book an endlessly fascinating account of medical history, but the author, Esquire contributing editor Luke Dittrich, has a deeply personal connection to the story.
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If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you’ll love Patient H.M.: Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. Not only is this new book an endlessly fascinating account of medical history, but the author, Esquire contributing editor Luke Dittrich, has a deeply personal connection to the story.

In the early 1930s in Hartford, Connecticut, a bicyclist zoomed down a hill and hit a boy who had just stepped into the road. That collision was the likely cause of severely debilitating epileptic seizures that began to plague young Henry Molaison. They were so crippling—and uncontrollable by drugs—that in 1953, his parents agreed to brain surgery for their then 27-year-old son.

Neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville removed most of Molaison’s medial temporal lobe, including his hippocampus. The patient’s seizures improved, but those “devastating and enlightening cuts” into his brain created a new problem: permanent amnesia. Unknowingly, Dr. Scoville had created “Patient H.M.,” who became one of the most important research subjects in neuroscience history. Though he died in 2008, his brain is still being studied, even sparking a custody battle between MIT and the University of California at San Diego.

Dittrich’s personal connection turns this already remarkable story into an extraordinary one: Dr. Scoville was his grandfather. Dittrich spent six years researching a saga fraught with family pitfalls. Scoville was a brilliant Yale professor with myriad accomplishments, but he was also a risk-taker whose love of cars and speed ultimately killed him. A man with a penchant for “fast results,” this gifted surgeon performed numerous lobotomies into the 1970s, well after they had largely gone out of fashion.

In riveting prose, Dittrich takes readers on an informative tour of everything from early mental illness treatments to neuroscience and neurosurgery. The result is a story filled with heartbreak and sweeping historical perspective.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with author Luke Dittrich.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Patient H.M.

Patient H.M.

By Luke Dittrich
Random House
ISBN 9780812992731

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