Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: Patient H.M.

Henry Molaison was a normal boy until the day a car struck him while he rode his bike. After the accident, he suffered frequent seizures. Henry began seeing doctors in an attempt to heal his brain. In his late twenties, a doctor tried a radical new procedure: a lobotomy. It didn't heal his seizures, but it did leave Henry unable to form long-term memories. He became known as Patient H.M. and was a constant source of study by scientists and surgeons for the rest of his life. Henry provided much of what we know today about the brain and how it works.

I have to admit that I picked up this book partially because it sounded fascinating and partially because it was compared to The Immortal Lives of Henrietta Lacks. The comparison is a fair one, as Dittrich blends the history of brain science and lobotomies along with his own grandfather's story as both a scientist and a part of his family. Dr. Scoville is Luke Dittrich's grandfather and the one who performed the procedure in question.

In spite of Dittrich's best efforts to be impartial, it is hard for the modern reader not to find fault with the methods and ethics of Dr. Scoville and his peers. The doctors frequently experimented on patients in mental facilities, many of whom suffered only from being different than their families or society preferred them to be. The most terrifying possibility is that Scoville operated on his own wife, Dittrich's grandmother.

Reading Patient H.M. is a fascinating experience. It's a deep dive into the horrors of mental health and brain study in the past without ignoring how much we have learned from their dubious methods. The story is a tragedy, as we see the life Henry Molaison led as a result of medical experimenting and the cost of the author's discoveries about his family. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in medical history and ethics, how our brains work, and every reader who appreciates good nonfiction.

Patient H.M
A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
By Luke Dittrich
Random House August 2016
320 pages
Read via Netgalley


  1. What a sad life. Poor Henry. I can see where the neuro-science of it all would be interesting, but I can't help feeling bad for Henry and what happened to him.

  2. This sounds fascinating! I fit into all the groups for whom you'd label this a must-read :)

  3. I'm reading this one too. Looking over your blog, I'm seeing a lot of books I want to add to my TBR list! I think we might have similar taste in books.

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