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

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

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Stacey Barkley
Reviewed by Stacey Barkley
Summary: An enthralling look back on the history of psychiatric care, which sheds light on the character behind one of the most well known psychological case histories to date.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: August 2017
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099571865

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Luke Dittrich seeks to shed light on the man behind the initials, and in doing so, uncovers quite a bit more than he expected.

Psychology textbooks to this day are filled with references to and case studies of patient H.M. In great detail those who have encountered the case could probably cite information on his cognitive abilities, and more specifically on his cognitive deficits. The case history was readily available; a young boy had a fall sustaining a head injury, he developed epilepsy, and eventually was operated on in a bid to improve his condition; the operation involved a surgeon drilling into his temporal lobe region; it was unsuccessful. And then years of cognitive testing followed. Beyond this, and the wealth of test results, for a long time not very much else was known about this man.

Dittrich, however, happens to be the grandson of William Beecher Scoville, the surgeon who drilled those now famous holes. He seeks not only to introduce us to Henry Molaison, the individual, but also to Scoville, the man behind the surgical mask. In learning what drove the latter's interest and passion we meet his wife, who herself experienced a mental breakdown. And so Dittrich begins to unravel two stories at once, because in order to explore the developments that led to the partial lobotomy patient H.M received, he must look back much further. Taking a historical perspective, the somewhat murky nature of psychiatric developments is unavoidable. One chapter opens amid the horror of Nazi experimentation and the Nuremberg trials. The next opens in an asylum of the time where the technology being used is directly descendent from these very experiments. The link is chilling.

From there a tour de force uncovers the frenzied drive to chart the brain and its function, and the psychosurgery that grew up out of this effort, which aimed to offer surgical cures for mental illness. It is worth remembering that at this time behaviour now generally accepted, including for instance, homosexuality, was very much considered a mental illness and therefore deemed open to the same surgical cure. And a surgical cure meant drilling into the brain. And so there arose a drive to gain expertise and to lead in this particular surgical field. This drive culminates in a 1948 showdown in which, both pioneering new techniques, Scoville competes against Walter Freeman for the best results. While Scoville was surgically trained, his counterpart, who blindly jabbed ice picks through the eye socket, was unsurprisingly not. What is surprising is that even without surgical training he was permitted to operate. And moreover, he was then free to drive around the country in his campervan ‘lobotomobile' performing such procedures.

It is, of course, with much hindsight and further understanding that we look back and wonder what in the world professionals were thinking, but our present privileged position is, uncomfortably, a result of these very research efforts. In fact, the whole case throws up an uncomfortable juxtaposition between the merits of scientific research and the human cost too. While protections at present are much greater in scope, Dittrich uncovers questions around the capacity of Henry Molaison to consent to his lifetime as a research subject. He throws up the imbalance of Molaison's lifestyle and that of the psychologists who gained stature and income as a result of his life, or rather his brain, which leads even in his death to an unexpected legal trial.

A combination of scientific and personal, Dittrich punctuates the history with personal accounts and snippets, which makes the end result a rare form of writing that touches and informs.

For a different, but equally fascinating exploration of the brain and its functions, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks presents a series of case studies of patients adjusting to various neurological conditions.

Buy Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich at Amazon.com.


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