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Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets

por Luke Dittrich

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4602754,384 (3.8)15
"In the summer of 1953, a renowned Yale neurosurgeon named William Beecher Scoville performed a novel operation on a 27-year-old epileptic patient named Henry Molaison, drilling two silver-dollar sized holes in his forehead and suctioning out a few teaspoons of tissue from a mysterious region deep inside his brain. The operation helped control Molaison's intractable seizures, but it also did something else: It left Molaison amnesic for the rest of his life, with a short term memory of just thirty seconds. Patient H.M., as he came to be known, would emerge as the most important human research subject in history. Much of what we now know about how memory works is a direct result of the sixty years of near-constant experimentation carried out upon him until his death in 2008. Award-winning journalist Luke Dittrich brings readers from the gleaming laboratory in San Diego where Molaison's disembodied brain -- now the focus of intense scrutiny -- sits today; to the surgical suites of the 1940s and 50s, where doctors wielded the powers of gods; and into the examination rooms where generations of researchers performed endless experiments on a single, essential, oblivious man: H.M.. In the process, Dittrich excavates the lives of Dr. Scoville and his most famous patient, and spins their tales together in thrilling, kaleidoscopic fashion, uncovering troves of well-guarded secrets, and revealing how the bright future of modern neuroscience has dark roots in the forgotten history of psychosurgery, raising ethical questions that echo into the present day"--Provided by publisher.… (mais)
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The term "scope creep" may as well have been invented for this book. The core concept is fascinating: Luke Dittrich, the grandson of Dr. William Scoville, the neurosurgeon who performed the temporal lobotomy on patient H.M., who inspired the movie Memento writes a book about all of that. The problem seems to be that Dittrich couldn't decide which book to write.

Therefore, he includes fascinating bits like the admission of his own grandmother -- Scoville's wife -- to the inpatient psychiatric facility were Scoville performed lobotomies. He departs into memoir at times. He explores the entire history of frontal lobotomy (at some length) and digresses into this history of psychiatry. These subjects come with no form of organization and many of them don't really reach a satisfying conclusion as they get discarded for something else. I found myself anxious to finish but disinterested in actually picking up the book. Frustratingly, Dittrich concludes the book with a brief synopsis of the ways that H.M.'s brain was anatomically different than expected -- a fascinating topic that he left basically untouched.

Also, usually an author's closeness to a subject makes it an ideal topic, but in this case I felt very uncomfortable with Dittrich's relationships to the scientists in this story. He is profoundly unhappy with his grandfather's work, calling his surgery on H.M. unforgivable and rash despite quoting experts who disagree. I think that there's a lot more nuance to performing a surgery on a patient with intractable epilepsy before the invention of modern antiepileptics. Similarly, Dittrich's mother's best friend, the psychiatrist who had scientific custody of H.M. in his later life, is painted as a territorial and vindictive villain.

The parts that are there, that are reflective and that are relevant are fascinating. So, three stars for content and concept. ( )
  settingshadow | Aug 19, 2023 |
This review originally appeared on my blog at www.gimmethatbook.com.

Many thanks to NetGalley for this ARC.

This book is more than a memoir; more than an expose of the lobotomy trade; more than a poignant tale of a man whose life was largely lived in the present moment. It’s an unsettling view of a medical procedure touted as something to make willful women “compliant” and violent men “placid”. The imagery of the procedure itself is even more eerie – the author describes the hippocampus as “being sucked up” by the vacuum used to perform the surgery. Implements such as a trephine drill, a scalpel, and forceps are used to obliterate parts of the brain responsible for making each of us human. Patients vomit or sing during the surgery, their brain sending out chaotic impulses. Afterwards, they are a shell of their former self, sometimes mute, dull, or forgetful.

Patient H.M. was the most intensively studied lobotomy “victim”, and his journey from epileptic to amnesiac is well chronicled here. Adding to the drama is that the grandfather of the author (Dr William Scofield) is the surgeon that operated on H.M.

There is backstabbing and intrigue within the medical community as well; one of H.M.’s fiercest protectors, neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin, may have destroyed much of her written notes on H.M., thereby casting a shadow over how much of her research was actually correct and reliable. It is mind boggling to learn about the amount of “experimentation” done on men and women, all in the name of advancing scientific knowledge. Consent at times was dubious, even after the Nuremberg Trials. The doctors thought they were doing the best for these patients, but as the author puts it, their hubris and audacity changed lives not always for the better.

Towards the end of the book, there is a section on H.M.’s actual thoughts on himself and his memory. He tries to put a positive spin on things, noting that always living in the present makes things interesting. I suppose you can’t miss what you never had; but I also was very deeply touched by the portrayal of this man who underwent a lobotomy because he was desperate to end his constant seizures. Was the quality of his life made better by suctioning out parts of his brain? That’s the gist of PATIENT H.M. – there are uncomfortable questions and sometimes dubious answers that make sense at times, but in actuality heinous, unspeakable deeds were committed against innocent people.

The author does a wonderful job of forcing the reader to consider these broken people as tragic creatures, unknowing fodder (sometimes referred to as “material”) for the surgeons who were all eager to try out this new and groundbreaking procedure.

Also broken are the main characters: the surgeon Scoville, the neuroscientist Corkin, and the brain researcher Jacopo Annese, who took possession of H.M.’s brain after the famous amnesiac died. After live streaming the dissection of the brain, there followed a volatile custody battle between Corkin and Annese over who was the “real” owner of the organ. Everyone wanted a piece of H.M. , either in life or death – and akin to Henrietta Lacks, he was never truly compensated for it.

I dare you to read this book and not be moved. PATIENT H.M. is educational, thrilling, and serves as a reminder of just how far medical science has come – and the depths it has gone to in order to reach this point.

( )
  kwskultety | Jul 4, 2023 |
while i'm sure this was the highlight of the book for many people, i somewhat disliked how much the author put himself and his family in the centre of this story.
well written, though. ( )
  zizabeph | May 7, 2023 |
I didn't quite know what to expect going into Patient HM. I knew it was about a man named Henry who was stuck in time, so to speak, after a freak bicycle accident. I also knew the book was written by the grandchild of the doctor who treated Henry. What I wasn't ready for was the sheer amount of revelation about how we treated people with mental illness and/or brain injury to advance science. Some of this was the stuff one reads in horror stories, but these were real life, flesh and blood people.
I felt for poor Henry as he was completely unaware of what was happening to him, but also recognize that without him, most of today's modern knowledge would not be around. That is truly the gripping question that sits at the heart of this book- if we didn't do some of the things we did to people, we wouldn't know how the brain works, how it responds to certain things, and we wouldn't have better techniques.
I was glad to have read this book as it reads like a novel of sorts. The story is a fascinating story filled with twists and turns, even up until the end. The amazing this was all of it was true!
I want to thank NetGalley and Random House for the opportunity to read this book. I received it for free in exchange for an honest review. I gave it 4.5 stars. ( )
  Nerdyrev1 | Nov 23, 2022 |
This was a fascinating book! It really delves into the history of the lobotomy, what it was, what it was used for, and how it came to be viewed as time went on. The book also explained the progression of the field known as psychosurgery from its inception. The book focuses mostly on Patient H.M., the most well known test subject, but again, broadens out to other patients and case studies. Even though the material was detailed and factual, I found it easy to follow and understand.

All told, I enjoyed this book very much and highly recommend it.

5/5 stars. ( )
  jwitt33 | Nov 11, 2022 |
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"In the summer of 1953, a renowned Yale neurosurgeon named William Beecher Scoville performed a novel operation on a 27-year-old epileptic patient named Henry Molaison, drilling two silver-dollar sized holes in his forehead and suctioning out a few teaspoons of tissue from a mysterious region deep inside his brain. The operation helped control Molaison's intractable seizures, but it also did something else: It left Molaison amnesic for the rest of his life, with a short term memory of just thirty seconds. Patient H.M., as he came to be known, would emerge as the most important human research subject in history. Much of what we now know about how memory works is a direct result of the sixty years of near-constant experimentation carried out upon him until his death in 2008. Award-winning journalist Luke Dittrich brings readers from the gleaming laboratory in San Diego where Molaison's disembodied brain -- now the focus of intense scrutiny -- sits today; to the surgical suites of the 1940s and 50s, where doctors wielded the powers of gods; and into the examination rooms where generations of researchers performed endless experiments on a single, essential, oblivious man: H.M.. In the process, Dittrich excavates the lives of Dr. Scoville and his most famous patient, and spins their tales together in thrilling, kaleidoscopic fashion, uncovering troves of well-guarded secrets, and revealing how the bright future of modern neuroscience has dark roots in the forgotten history of psychosurgery, raising ethical questions that echo into the present day"--Provided by publisher.

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