When researchers asked Henry Molaison to define words of recent vintage, the results often were comic: Boat people, Henry guessed, were “people who cater bon voyage parties,” and apartheid referred to “the separation of young cows that have not yet given birth to calves.”
But Henry’s larger story, as related by Luke Dittrich in “Patient H.M,” is the stuff of tragedy. Plagued by epileptic fits, Henry, a native of Greater Hartford, submitted to brain surgery that he and his parents hoped would improve his condition. But the physician was a lobotomist, and his experimental tinkering with Henry’s brain inflicted permanent damage.
After the 1953 procedure that removed most of his medial temporal lobes, Henry, then 27, was unable to make new memories, couldn’t construct coherent stories about his past, garbled historical events, and never managed even to recognize the scientist, Brenda Milner, who probed his consciousness for years.
Milner, as well as her successors, remained forever a stranger, Dittrich writes, while Henry himself resided in an eternal present, a sort of unwitting Buddhist. Enduring batteries of intelligence, psychological, and behavioral tests, he became, according to Dittrich, “the most studied individual in the history of neuroscience.” Henry’s condition suggested two revolutionary ideas: that the medial temporal lobes were the seat of memory and that there were “at least two distinct and independent memory systems, one that was intact in Henry and one that was not.”
Dittrich, an award-winning magazine writer, would seem the perfect narrator of this tale of a man deprived of the ability to form narratives: It was Dittrich’s maternal grandfather, William Beecher Scoville, whose “devastating and enlightening cuts” made Henry both a scientific curiosity and vehicle for understanding human memory.
Scoville was, in Dittrich’s telling, a loving husband, father, and grandfather. He was also an enthusiastic lobotomist — lagging only Walter Freeman, pioneer of the ice-pick frontal lobotomy, in the number of such operations performed. Unlike Freeman, however, Scoville was a trained neurosurgeon, and he developed more refined techniques for removing and destroying brain tissue.
From a 21st–century perspective, of course, both men seem like reprehensible bumblers, even if their underlying motives weren’t inherently villainous. Dittrich does fault Scoville, known by some of his colleagues as “Wild Bill,” for recklessness, and for seeming at times to care more about scientific discovery than his patients’s well-being.
During Scoville’s operation on Henry, when an electroencephalogram failed to pinpoint the origin of the epileptic seizures, the “safest move” would have been to abort the procedure, Dittrich writes. Or Scoville could have operated on one hemisphere and observed the result. Instead, Dittrich argues, he made “the riskiest possible” decision, and destroyed both lobes.
It is arguably brave of Dittrich to investigate his own grandfather. In some of the book’s most chillingly effective passages, he also lays bare the struggles of his maternal grandmother, whose mental illness exposed her, in asylums, to many of the shockingly primitive and invasive treatments of the day.
But his narrative — complex and, at times, fragmentary, repetitive, and willfully digressive — could have been tightened. Some of the personal passages — about his daughter, the woman he never married, his failed debut as a bullfighter, and his early stabs at magazine journalism — could easily have been excised.
Neither do we need so many vivid, stomach-turning description of surgeons (and amateurs) hacking away at the brain.
Even some of the sections on Henry — whose plight inspired the film “Memento” (2000), about a man with a similar condition — would have benefited from judicious trims.
The book gathers momentum much too slowly, as Dittrich jumps around in time and space, juxtaposing too many narrative threads. After a scene of a neuroanatomist examining Henry’s brain, we flash back to Henry’s story, beginning with a concussive fall that likely sparked his seizures. In short order, we get capsule histories of epilepsy, brain science, and psychosurgery; bits and pieces of Scoville’s biography; Scoville’s wife’s terrifying descent into psychosis; and Dittrich’s attempts to come to grips with — and, frankly, capitalize on — his legacy.
The brilliant, arrogant, and daredevil Scoville isn’t the only bad actor in “Patient H.M.” Dittrich portrays Suzanne Corkin, a family friend who took over H.M.–related studies from her mentor, Milner, as unduly possessive and defensive. He maintains that her research, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was incremental rather than ground-breaking, that Corkin (who died in May) failed to protect Henry’s interests and that she cheated science by destroying unpublished records of her work with him.
Certainly, Corkin was slow to cooperate with Dittrich, and his irritation at her stonewalling shows.
Corkin’s MIT colleagues and other neuroscientists have recently rallied to her defense, saying that she always acted ethically and, most significantly, that (her claims to Dittrich notwithstanding) records of H.M. experiments were never shredded.
The final chapters of “Patient H.M.” contain genuine surprises that it would be unfair to spoil. Despite the book’s narrative shortcomings, Dittrich emerges as both an assiduous, fearless researcher and an intelligent guide through the mysteries about memory that Henry helped to illuminate.
A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
By Luke Dittrich
Random House, 464 pages, $28
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.