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

Patient H.M: Memory, Madness and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
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In 1953 the Connecticut neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville drilled two holes into the skull of Henry Molaison and removed a large portion of his temporal lobe, in an attempt to cure the 27-year-old of severe epilepsy. Scoville’s reckless and untested procedure lessened Molaison’s seizures but also rendered him unable to form memories for the rest of his life, said Seth Mnookin in The New York Times. Over the next 55 years, Molaison, known only as “Patient H.M.”, became one of the “most important patients in the history of neurology”; he was the subject of hundreds of studies that revolutionised our understanding of memory. After his death, in 2008, the dissection of his brain was streamed live online.

This is an “extraordinary story”, said Clive Davis in The Times. And Patient H.M. is made more remarkable by the fact that its author, US journalist Luke Dittrich, is the grandson of the “high-handed surgeon” who consigned Molaison to “a life in limbo”. The problem with this “ambitious, impassioned but frustrating” book is that Dittrich is both “too close to the story” and too far from it. There’s far too much detail and colour; far too many digressions into family history and Dittrich’s own reminiscences. Yet, perhaps inevitably, Molaison himself remains “a cipher”. Occasionally, one gets a glimpse of his life: his stultifying conversation, his days spent filling bags with balloons in a day-care centre. “Yet it is, sadly, only a fleeting glimpse.”