At the age of seven, Henry Gustav Molaison was involved in an accident that left him with severe epilepsy. Twenty years later, a surgeon named William Scoville tried to cure him by removing parts of his brain. It worked, but the procedure left Molaison unable to make new long-term memories. Everyone he met, every conversation he had, everything that happened to him would just evaporate from his mind. These problems revolutionized our understanding of how memory works, and transformed Molaison into “Patient H.M.”—arguably the most famous and studied patient in the history of neuroscience.
That’s the familiar version of the story, but the one presented in Luke Dittrich’s new book Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets is deeper and darker. As revealed through Dittrich’s extensive reporting and poetic prose, Molaison’s tale is one of ethical dilemmas that not only influenced his famous surgery but persisted well beyond his death in 2008. It’s a story about more than just the life of one man or the root of memory; it’s also about how far people are willing to go for scientific advancement, and the human cost of that progress.
And Dittrich is uniquely placed to consider these issues. Scoville was his grandfather. Suzanne Corkin, the scientist who worked with Molaison most extensively after his surgery, was an old friend of his mother’s. I spoke to him about the book and the challenges of reporting a story that he was so deeply entwined in.