Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets

“Astonishingly insightful . . . A fascinating story in its own right to anyone interested in the history of modern science’s attempts to understand the causes of mental illness along with the many botched attempts to treat it . . . [Patient H.M.] is indeed about memory, madness, and family secrets and, in that sense, about the paths that shape the core of the self, in each and every one of us.”
— Psychology Today

Henry Molaison

Patient H.M.

Pneumoencephalogram record, September 5th, 1946

Surgical Report, September 11th, 1953

Henry Molaison's early medical records illustrate both the severity of his epilepsy and the dearth of effective treatment options. Above, on the left, you'll find a record of a painful procedure known as a pneumoencephalogram, which involved draining the cerebral fluid out of Henry's skull and replacing it with air, in order to obtain a clearer X-ray which still failed to provide evidence of a neurological source for his seizures. The document on the right is the surgical record of the radical experimental brain operation which transformed Henry Molaison into the amnesic Patient H.M. My grandfather's comment that Henry's post-operative condition was "improved" makes you wonder about his definition of improvement. 


William Beecher Scoville

neurosurgeon

My grandfather was a brilliant and morally complex man. He always used to say that his true passion was tinkering with automobiles, and that if he hadn't become a surgeon, he would have become a mechanic. As it was, he made his mark by tinkering with the most complicated engine of them all: the human brain. There are many things he did which I find troubling, but I always try to bear in mind that whatever his flaws, and no matter how many people he damaged, he also saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. 

pioneering lobotomist

Beginning in the late 1930s, neurosurgeons around the world began attempting to cure all sorts of mental illnesses by selectively destroying parts of the brain. My grandfather probably didn't perform his first lobotomy until the 1940s, but he quickly made up for lost time, ultimately becoming one of the most prolific lobotomists in history. He pioneered a number of variations on the procedure, one of which was the so-called "medial temporal lobotomy" he performed on Henry Molaison. 

An illustration of my grandfather's so-called "orbital undercutting" approach to the lobotomy


Family Connections as a Bridge

 Emily "Bambam" Scoville

Emily "Bambam" Scoville

“There is only one way we tell stories about other people, and it’s the only way we’ve ever told stories about other people. We find the connections between us and them, and then we use those connections as a bridge.”
— Excerpt from Patient H.M.

A Troubled Marriage

My grandparents had been married for ten years when my grandmother went mad. Growing up, I'd heard that she'd had some sort of breakdown in the past, but it wasn't until I began researching this book that I excavated the grisly details, both of the breakdown itself and of the treatments she endured afterwards. Eventually, I discovered that my grandmother's madness, and my grandfather's desperate quest to find a surgical cure for it, played a seminal role in the history of modern memory science. 

 William Beecher Scoville

William Beecher Scoville


Luke Dittrich has achieved something remarkable in Patient H.M. This book succeeds on every level: as a fresh look at the most famous patient in medical history, as an exposé of our dark history of psychiatry and neurosurgery, and, most powerfully, as a deeply personal investigation into the author’s past. And yet it’s still a page-turner that reads like a thriller.
— Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire

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