By Laura Stark
Stories are made, not discovered, and journalist Luke Dittrich is a master of his craft. In Patient H.M., Dittrich stitches a history of memory science with the golden thread of his own family drama—a thread that frays at
the end into personal vendetta. The book is
an intricately plotted story of “heroes and
villains” orbiting around the patient known
Henry Molaison was born in 1926, was di-
agnosed with epilepsy as a child, and spent
most of his life around Hart-
from high school and working
blue-collar jobs until age 27. In
1953, he and his parents decided
he should undergo a treatment
for epilepsy that was considered
experimental but promising
at the time: brain surgery. The
neurosurgeon who operated on
Molaison was Dittrich’s grandfather, William Beecher Scoville, a
man underlings called Wild Bill.
During surgery, he had expected
to pinpoint the area that caused
Molaison’s seizures but was unable to do so; he opted nonetheless to remove both of Molaison’s
medial temporal lobes. After the
surgery, Molaison could not create new memories.
To his credit, Dittrich avoids the easy “vil-
lain” narrative. He can have a subtle moral
imagination that appreciates the humanity
even of people often cast as bad guys. “None
of us are all light or all dark,” he writes, “and
most of us are both at once.”
Scoville’s impulse decision debilitated Mo-
laison, but it also made him into “H.M.”—an
invaluable human subject for scientists, his
brain an irreplicable natural experiment.
Scoville partnered with leading neuroscien-
tists at McGill University, and the team pub-
lished path-breaking studies on memory and
amnesia through the 1950s and 1960s, based
on continued work with Molaison.
When, after two decades, interest in Molaison waned at McGill, Suzanne Corkin,
then a graduate student in the lab, adopted
the project as she began a new faculty position at MIT. Corkin built her career around
research on Molaison, and when he died in
2008, she coordinated the donation of his
brain to a tissue bank. In 2013, she published
a well-received memoir of her career with
Molaison, Permanent Present Tense (1,2).
As Dittrich recounts this history, he braids
in adventure stories from generations of
men in his family: his grandfather’s stunt
dive from the George Washington Bridge, his
great-grandfather’s dodge of a fatal bullet, his
grandfather’s grandfather’s seductions from
the pulpit, and his own hike to pyramids in
Egypt, bullfight in Mexico, and paramour in
Ecuador, to name a few. If these stories sound
tangential, that is precisely Dittrich’s point:
“One of the things our brains do, constantly,
unconsciously, whether we like it or not, is
make connections.” Stories are those crooked
connections that people put into language
and mold into narrative form.
Dittrich’s adventure stories bustle with intrigue and derring-do. But the book’s exhilarating moments really come when he stays on
topic and stretches his perspective—
amplifying Molaison’s voice from study transcripts or
inhabiting the mind of his own grandmother,
slowly revealing that she is schizophrenic.
It seems inevitable that the book will be
compared to the patient biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. But, while
Dittrich is an exceptional writer, he focuses
his talents in the last half of his book on a
takedown of rival author Suzanne Corkin,
missing opportunities to turn his own family
story into one of more universal scope.
In 2010, Dittrich published his first piece
in Esquire. It was about his grandfather
and H.M., and it reappears in this book. For
the article, Dittrich contacted Corkin, who
was an old friend of his mother and still
at MIT, requesting to interview this yet-
anonymous patient and asking her to share
study records. She hedged, he persisted,
and eventually MIT agreed to share materi-
als but with restrictions on private health
information and commercial use—terms
that seem conventional in the context
of modern medical law but that Dittrich
found “bizarre and somewhat unsettling.”
Dittrich’s forgivable looseness with histori-
cal detail in earlier sections takes its toll
here and in other episodes as he struggles
to extend his moral imagination to Corkin.
Dittrich only reveals at the end that Cor-
kin was writing her own book
on H.M., which recasts his story
up to that point in a new light.
It helps make sense of his eager-
ness to see her actions as per-
sonal slights, character flaws,
and bad science rather than
symptoms of broken systems.
It is a pity, because his sense of
personal grievance narrows him
into a story about a uniquely
menacing scientist rather than
a universal story of the legal and
institutional ties that bind even
well-intentioned people (3).
Midway through this beguil-
ing book, Dittrich learns that
his grandfather may have done
brain surgery on his schizo-
phrenic grandmother. Dittrich
closes the book with a transcript
from his key source for this information, an
elderly doctor who, Dittrich suggests, has
amnesia himself. The book aims to show that
memory is always selective, partial, and open
to new interpretation—that all narrators are
a bit unreliable. In the end, Patient H.M. is a
story about how stories can never, finally,
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. S. Corkin, Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life
of the Amnesic Patient, H.M. (Basic Books, New York, 2013).
2. N. Zeliadt, Science ,341, 459 (2013).
3. An excerpt published in the New York Times
Magazine on 7 August 2016 elicited a response
from more than 200 members of the international scientific community disputing Dittrich’s
allegations ( http://bcs.mit.edu/news-events/news/
An intimate portrait of a
famous amnesiac is also a
tale of personal grievances
The reviewer is at the Center for Medicine, Health, and
Society, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37235, USA.
A Story of Memory, Madness,
and Family Secrets
Random House, 2016, 464 pp.
A researcher holds the brain of Henry Molaison, whose surgically induced amnesia
led to important insights into the neural correlates of learning and memory.