Winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Named One of the Best Books of the Year by:
The Washington Post • New York Post • NPR • The Economist
New York • Wired • Kirkus Reviews • BookPage
About the Book
In 1953, a twenty-seven-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 sixty 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.
Reporting and writing my book about Henry was, at times, a deeply personal journey. My grandfather was the brilliant and morally complex surgeon who operated on him, and my investigation into the dark roots of modern memory science ultimately forced me to confront unsettling secrets in my own family history. I eventually stumbled across evidence of the hidden tragedy that fueled my grandfather’s relentless campaign of human experimentation—experimentation that would revolutionize our understanding of ourselves.
This book is part biography, part memoir, part science journalism. I use Henry's case as a starting point for a journey that moves from the first recorded brain surgeries in ancient Egypt to the cutting-edge laboratories of MIT. I try to take readers inside the old asylums and operating theaters where psychosurgeons, as they called themselves, conducted their experiments, and behind the scenes of a bitter custody battle over the ownership of the most important brain in the world. I hope that, in some small way, this book reveals the wondrous and devastating things that can happen when hubris, ambition, and human imperfection collide.
For many decades prior to the publication of my book, a small group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology controlled Henry Molaison’s story, much like they controlled access to Henry himself. According to the tale they told, Henry was an ever-willing participant to a half-century of gentle, compassionate, and ethical research. My book pushed back against MIT’s narrative in a variety of ways, so perhaps it’s not surprising that MIT has pushed back against me. Here, you’ll find summaries of each of the university’s major criticisms, as well as my responses.
If you purchase the paperback edition of Patient H.M., you’ll find it includes an extensive new endnotes section. Here, I'll be supplementing those endnotes with a curated and growing collection of photos, medical records, and other documents that I uncovered as part of my research.
Praise for Patient H.M.
“At the heart of this breathtaking work . . . is [Luke] Dittrich’s story of his complicated grandfather, his mentally ill grandmother, and a long-held family secret, with Molaison stranded ‘where the past and the future were nothing but indistinct blurs.”
“In prose both elegant and intimate, and often thrilling, Patient H.M. is an important book about the wages not of sin but of science.”
“A book that will rank with Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in the realm of outstanding medical ethics narratives.”
“An exciting, artful blend of family and medical history.”