When Henry Molaison was 7 or 8 years old he collided with a bicycle and hit his head, an incident that many scientists believe was the cause of his subsequent epileptic seizures. By the time he turned 27, Henry and his parents were desperate for relief from what had become a debilitating condition, so much so that they agreed to let Dr. William Scoville, a neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital, perform a lobotomy. This would be a new type of lobotomy that would specifically target the medial temporal lobes. While the operation did initially seem to offer some relief from the seizures, it also gave Henry severe anterograde amnesia, meaning he couldn’t make new memories (hey, kind of like this). For the next 60 years, Henry served as a research subject in some of the most revealing studies about neuroscience that have ever taken place: he and his brain gave scientists valuable information that contributed to our current understanding of how the brain and memory works.
For author Luke Dittrich, this book is a journey of personal as well as scientific discovery. Bill Scoville, the neurosurgeon who performed Henry’s operation, was Dittrich’s grandfather. Dittrich neither lionizes nor demonizes Scoville, but seems to genuinely want to learn more about the man and his motives. For the most part Scoville comes off as likable and professional (one has to remember that the surgery happened in the 1950s when lobotomies were given out like aspirin) although Dittrich does learn one or two surprising facts about his family history along the way.
For me the highlights of this book were the transcripts of interviews between Henry and the various scientists. By all accounts, Henry was a pleasant man who, for the most part, enjoyed the tests, because he felt like he was contributing to science (and he was). Even as he struggles to answer questions he remains pleasant and oddly rationale. In one example, he explains how he initially wanted to be a brain surgeon but thought better of the idea:
RESEARCHER: A brain surgeon?
HM: Yeah. And I said no to myself. Before I had any kind of epilepsy.
RESEARCHER: Did you? Why is that?
HM: Because I wore glasses. I said, suppose you are making an incision in someone, and you could get the blood on your glasses, or an attendant could be mopping your brow and go too low and throw your glasses off.
RESEARCHER: That would be bad, wouldn’t it?
HM: Yeah ’cause you’d make the wrong movement then.
At once fascinating and heartbreaking, the transcripts reveal an often child-like confusion. In this example, he seems to be alluding to his own brain surgery, although as far as we know Dr. Scoville never made a wrong movement on Henry.
Henry willed his brain to MIT, with approval from his legal guardian and distant relative Tom Mooney. When he died in 2008, his brain was removed and given over to a project of The Brain Observatory at U.C. San Diego. From there, much studying and even more squabbling was done to and about Henry’s brain.
The last 30 or so pages of this book deeply troubled me as Dittrich gives insight into the drama and petty back-biting that is part of scientific research (I would say we don’t want to see how the sausage is made, but that analogy seems particularly grim in a conversation about brains). While there’s no indication that Henry was ever treated with anything but kindness and respect during his life, the entitlement and ownership that the scientific community displayed towards his organ after death sickened me more than anything else in this book, and that includes descriptions of brain slices and ice-pick lobotomies.
Shortly before Patient H.M. was published, Dittrich authored an article for the New York Times Magazine about Patient H.M., including the fight over his brain. Of all the characters in this real-life drama, Dr. Suzanne Corkin comes off worst, something that MIT took issue with in their rebuttal. There was some suggestion from MIT that Dittrich had a personal vendetta against Corkin, something we’ll probably never know for sure since she died before the article was published.
I suppose there’s no point feeling too sad for Henry; he did after all fulfill his wish of contributing to scientific research. But among all the research and scientific coldness, I felt a deep warmth for the man whose brain gave us so much.