Book Review: Patient H.M.

Hoping to cure the epilepsy that had dogged him for twenty years, Henry Molaison elected to receive a lobotomy in 1953. Neurosurgeon William Scoville employed a radical procedure for the time, removing significant portions of Molaison’s hippocampus. After the procedure, the frequency of Molaison’s seizures decreased. However, Molaison found himself unable to commit new events to his memory, and was soon diagnosed with anterograde amnesia.

Molaison’s tale is gut-wrenching. It demonstrates the unintended consequences that often coincide with experimental procedures. It also illustrates how we rationalize these cases, perhaps perversely, by considering the scientific advancements they enable. Based on Molaison’s experiences, neuroscientists concluded that the hippocampus is essential for memory formation. Molaison was immortalized as “Patient H.M.” in textbooks and subsequent research.

Luke Dittrich’s new book, Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets, introduces much needed passion and compassion into the often overly-academic subject of medical ethics. In 400 pages of searing prose, Dittrich lays out the implications of capitalizing on such unfortunate events in excruciating detail.

Dittrich’s work resonates. It is the culmination of not only six-years of work from an award-winning journalist, but also a substantial amount of introspection. Dittrich’s grandfather was the surgeon who lobotomized Patient H.M., and his family friend Suzanne Corkin is a prominent MIT neuroscientist who has researched Patient H.M. for decades.

The most powerful moments of the book come from Dittrich’s intimate connections to the protagonists of 20th century neuroscience. While reading about the horrors experienced by Scoville’s mentally ill wife, we are privy to the reflections of a grandson attempting to understand his grandfather. When we read about researchers such as Corkin obtaining “consent” from a lobotomized amnesiac, we realize that Dittrich is not only critiquing the actions of a prominent neuroscientist, but of someone who once gossiped with his mother on tin-can telephones.

Dittrich’s allegations of ethical shortcomings against Corkin have drawn attention from the scientific community. Hundreds of neuroscientists sought to rebut Dittrich’s claims: specifically, that Corkin destroyed records relating to Molaison, suppressed findings that opposed once-firm paradigms of modern neuroscience, and failed to obtain proper consent for experimentation. Dittrich himself has responded to these claims, providing documented evidence to support his assertions.

The existence of such arguments in the public sphere reinforces the ethical stakes of scientific research that we may occasionally take for granted. Patient H.M. convincingly insists that we often ignore such conversations at our own peril.


Rating: 3.5/4