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In 1953, a 27-year-old factory worker named Henry Molaison - who suffered from severe epilepsy - received a radical new version of the then-common lobotomy, targeting the most mysterious structures in the brain. The operation failed to eliminate Henry's seizures, but it did have an unintended effect: Henry was left profoundly amnesic, unable to create long-term memories. Over the next 60 years, Patient H.M., as Henry was known, became the most studied individual in the history of neuroscience, a human guinea pig who would teach us much of what we know about memory today.
Patient H.M. is, at times, a deeply personal journey. Dittrich's grandfather was the brilliant, morally complex surgeon who operated on Molaison - and thousands of other patients. The author's investigation into the dark roots of modern memory science ultimately forces him to confront unsettling secrets in his own family history and to reveal the tragedy that fueled his grandfather's relentless experimentation - experimentation that would revolutionize our understanding of ourselves.
Dittrich uses the case of Patient H.M. as a starting point for a kaleidoscopic journey, one that moves from the first recorded brain surgeries in ancient Egypt to the cutting-edge laboratories of MIT. He takes listeners inside the old asylums and operating theaters where psychosurgeons, as they called themselves, conducted their human experiments and behind the scenes of a bitter custody battle over the ownership of the most important brain in the world.
Patient H.M. combines the best of biography, memoir, and science journalism to create a haunting, endlessly fascinating story, one that reveals the wondrous and devastating things that can happen when hubris, ambition, and human imperfection collide.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Jennifer on 03-09-18
Fascinating (and Disturbing) Read
What did you love best about Patient H.M.?
Patient H.M., aside from Phineas Gage, is probably one of the most well known figures we learned about in my graduate neuroscience classes. His contribution to our understanding of memory cannot be emphasized enough. Although we spent a great deal of time in my graduate classes learning about what he contributed to science, he was still alive at the time and therefore we learned nothing about who he was as a person. This book fills in those gaps and gives us a glimpse into Henry as a human being. What's all the more unique is that the author is the grandson of the surgeon that performed Henry's life changing (and quite frankly horrific) operation. It was shocking to read about some of the things neurosurgeons were doing in those days without the slightest bit of evidence that their surgeries were beneficial. Although some aspects of the author's personal life could have been left out (the author's path to journalism and the birth of his daughter, for example) I found his Grandmother's story interesting and it tied in well to Patient H.M.'s story. The story does also jump around a bit within and between chapters, so it was slightly confusing at times, but overall I enjoyed this book.