Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich
A Family's Secrets, the Ruthless Pursuit of Knowledge, and the Brain That Changed Everything

80%

5 Critic Reviews

Though long, there’s not a wasted word in the book, which should make readers glad we live in the age of Prozac and not the scalpel. A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation.
-Kirkus

Synopsis

For readers of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks comes a propulsive, haunting journey into the secret history of brain science by Luke Dittrich, whose grandfather performed the surgery that created the most studied human research subject of all time: the amnesic known as Patient H.M.

“Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King in a piercing study of one of psychiatric medicine’s darker hours. . . . A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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.

Patient H.M. is, at times, a deeply personal journey. Dittrich’s grandfather was the brilliant, morally complex surgeon who operated on Molaison—and thousands of other patients. The author’s investigation into the dark roots of modern memory science ultimately forces him to confront unsettling secrets in his own family history, and to reveal the tragedy that fueled his grandfather’s relentless experimentation—experimentation that would revolutionize our understanding of ourselves.

Dittrich uses the case of Patient H.M. as a starting point for a kaleidoscopic journey, one that moves from the first recorded brain surgeries in ancient Egypt to the cutting-edge laboratories of MIT. He takes readers inside the old asylums and operating theaters where psychosurgeons, as they called themselves, conducted their human experiments, and behind the scenes of a bitter custody battle over the ownership of the most important brain in the world.

Patient H.M. combines the best of biography, memoir, and science journalism to create a haunting, endlessly fascinating story, one that reveals the wondrous and devastating things that can happen when hubris, ambition, and human imperfection collide.

Advance praise for Patient H.M.

Patient H.M. tells one of the most fascinating and disturbing stories in the annals of medicine, weaving in ethics, philosophy, a personal saga, the history of neurosurgery, the mysteries of human memory, and an exploration of human ego.”—Sheri Fink, M.D., Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Five Days at Memorial

“Dittrich explores the limits of science and the mind. In the process, he rescues an iconic life from oblivion. Dittrich is well aware that while we are the sum of what we may remember, we’re also at the mercy of what we can forget. This is classic reporting and myth-making at the same time.”—Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin

“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

“It felt as if I read this book in one breath. Patient H.M. is a fascinating, powerful investigation, a matryoshka doll of nested stories about the past and present, remembering and forgetting.”—Michael Paterniti, author of The Telling Room


From the Hardcover edition.
 

About Luke Dittrich

See more books from this Author
LUKE DITTRICH is a contributing editor at Esquire, and his work has been widely anthologized. In 2012, he won the National Magazine Award for feature writing. This is his first book.

Author Residence: Cambridge, MA

Author Hometown: Cambridge, MA
 
Published August 9, 2016 by Random House. 464 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Political & Social Sciences, Nature & Wildlife, Professional & Technical, Science & Math, Health, Fitness & Dieting. Non-fiction
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Critic reviews for Patient H.M.
All: 5 | Positive: 4 | Negative: 1

Kirkus

Excellent
on Jun 01 2016

Though long, there’s not a wasted word in the book, which should make readers glad we live in the age of Prozac and not the scalpel. A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation.

Read Full Review of Patient H.M.: A Family's Secr... | See more reviews from Kirkus

Publishers Weekly

Excellent
on Jul 25 2016

At the heart of this breathtaking work, however, is 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.”

Read Full Review of Patient H.M.: A Family's Secr... | See more reviews from Publishers Weekly

NPR

Above average
Reviewed by Annalisa Quinn on Aug 14 2016

The ability to write gracefully about something as abstruse as the brain, to clarify a complex idea with just the right metaphor, is a special skill.

Read Full Review of Patient H.M.: A Family's Secr... | See more reviews from NPR

The Economist

Good
on Aug 20 2016

The family secret referred to in the book’s subtitle is foreshadowed early on, but its revelation is no less powerful when it comes.

Read Full Review of Patient H.M.: A Family's Secr... | See more reviews from The Economist

NY Times

Below average
Reviewed by Seth Mnookin on Sep 04 2016

The end result is both spellbinding and frustrating, a paradox of a book that is simultaneously conscientious and careless, engrossing and digressive, troubling and troublesome.

Read Full Review of Patient H.M.: A Family's Secr... | See more reviews from NY Times

Reader Rating for Patient H.M.
90%

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