Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Patient H.M.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
Random House Publishing Group: 8/9/16
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812992731

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich is a very highly recommended account of his grandfather, Dr. William Beecher Scoville, an early brain surgeon, and his most famous patient, Henry Molaison. If you were mesmerized by The  Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, you won't want to miss Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich.

Investigative journalist Luke Dittrich covers not only the story of Henry Molaison, an epileptic man who is considered one of the most important neuroscience human research subjects; he also explores the history of neurosurgery and lobotomies, and his own family history. Along the way ethical questions are raised regarding the treatment of Henry, famously only known as Patient H.M. for years, and how proprietorial researchers are on sharing  information.

Henry and his family agreed to brain surgery in order to stop the debilitating epileptic seizures he was having. While it did stop the seizures, it also causes short term amnesia. Henry could no longer remember any new information or form any new long term memories. After this he became Patient H.M., one of the most studied individuals over a span of decades, but also one whose identity was closely guarded.

Dittrich takes the facts of Patient H. M. and early neurosurgery and makes the story personal. His grandfather was a pioneer in the field and the one to perform the surgery on Henry, but Dittrich also tells of his mentally-ill grandmother, and a family secret. In Patient H.M. the author takes an extremely interesting piece of history and makes it even more compelling because of the personal connection Dittrich has to it, while describing the limbo Henry found himself in, with no ties to recent memories.

The writing is very good and this nonfiction account reads like a novel. I was immersed in Dittrick's family history, as well as the story of Henry himself and the history of neurosurgery. The legal fights over Henry's body and the ending was, well, stunning. You have to read this book which is sure to be in the top nonfiction of the year.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

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