Luke Dittrich explores chilling questions of moral ambiguity in his book Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. As revealed in the biography of Dittrich by Penguin Random House, Patient H.M. largely tells the “true story of Henry Molaison, an amnesic who became the most studied human research subject ever.”
The book extends the exposition into Dittrich‘s grandfather, Dr. William Scoville. The book delves into much of the history of “psycho-surgeries” (read lobotomies) that Scoville and Walter Jackson Freeman II promoted widely and spread with enthusiasm through the 1940s and some of the 1950s. The book Patient H.M. shares how Molaison was lobotomized by Scoville as a “culmination of a long period of human experimentation that…[Dr. William Scoville]…and other leading doctors and researchers had been conducting in hospitals and asylums around the country.” This August 9, 2016 New York Times article is the source of that quote.
Dittrich‘s book explains that Scoville was in part motivated to find a cure for his first wife; Scoville’s wife at this point (there were two) was Dittrich’s biological grandmother. The book confirms that Scoville performed surgery on Molaison, most likely the wife that would later divorce him, and an estimate of thousands of other patients as well. That this was done with the ostensible support of the American medical establishment, even after the legal and ethical condemnations to human experimentation in Nuremburg following World War II, shocks me. See this Doctor’s Trial link for more details. Patient H.M. explores this subject in enough detail that the reader is left to struggle with the ethical mortification imbued in Dittrich’s exploration.
The book goes into some of the history Dr. Suzanne Corkin of MIT, who studied Henry Molaison as a patient for more than 50-years. (Understand that Molaison underwent the lobotomy as an epilepsy patient in his 20s, and lived into his 70s). It was through much of Corkin’s research that awareness of the way memory works in the human mind became known. Dittrich asks some pointed questions about the raw data underpinning Corkin’s research, what she had to gain from information she kept or did not, and the ownership of Molaison’s brain (and the work product governing it) after Molaison’s death.
Patient H.M. is described in this Amazon book listing as a “biography, memoir, and science journalism” book, which is where it aims and largely lands. The storytelling does demand a certain degree of focus from the reader. Many threads of the narrative tend to get explored for periods of time, dropped, and then reappear. I’ve seen commentary from neuroscientists that indicate some of Dittrich’s knowledge is lacking, though the level of information worked for my tastes as a person not trained in medical science.
I came away with more insight into memory and the different ways that it works. The larger stories of Molaison, Scoville, neuroscience in the 20th century, and the meaning this had to Dittrich‘s family, fascinated me. The ethical questions around informed consent and the lines between the research and practice in medicine, trouble me. Upon finishing Patient H.M., my interest in a deeper dive on that last subject.
I would read this book again; I recommend that others read it. My rating is 3.5-stars out of 5, mostly owing to my interest in the subject matter coupled with the author not having taken a firmer stand about his own personal feelings surrounding the morality of his grandfather’s actions.
Matt – Wednesday, April 5, 2017