Bringing new life to ‘Patient H.M.,’ the man who couldn’t make memories

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a story of scientific history, human drama, and ethical controversies shaped around the idea of memory.

You can find Jeffrey Brown at our “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent decades, scientists have made great advances in understanding how and where the human brain makes and stores memories, a key part of forming our identities.

A man who unwittingly helped them do it, Henry Molaison, who underwent a lobotomy in 1953 intended to relieve his epileptic seizures. A large part of his hippocampus was removed.

LUKE DITTRICH, Author, “Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets”: As soon as he came out of the operating room, it became clear that he was no longer able to create new memories.

And so this gave scientists for the first time really a clear sense of how important these structures were to the creation of new memories. And that was sort of the first and in many ways most fundamental thing that he taught us about how memory works.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his new book, Luke Dittrich tells the story of the man known for decades as Patient H.M., considered the most important research subject in the history of brain science.

And there’s more. The lobotomy was performed by Dittrich’s grandfather, Dr. William Scoville, a prominent brain surgeon at a time when such procedures were done by the thousands. I spoke to Luke Dittrich at Washington’s Lincoln Theatre.

LUKE DITTRICH: I personally found it to be a very shocking story during the course of my reporting.

This came to be during an era when the lines between medical practice and medical research were fairly blurry, and, you know, people crossed some lines that they most likely shouldn’t have crossed.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is the era of lobotomies.

LUKE DITTRICH: That’s correct.

And one of the things that my research led me deep into was the history of the lobotomy and of this whole field known as psychosurgeries that came out of desperate times, the mentally ill at the time, in the sort of 1930s and 1940s. There were no — there were no real good, effective treatments for a lot of the things that they suffered from, and the lobotomy rose up as a sort of — a quick fix.

But it had serious consequences.

JEFFREY BROWN: We live in an age now of neuroscience. Right?

It’s sort of everywhere.

LUKE DITTRICH: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: With a lot of new technology.

But this is a period not so long ago, in the 20th century, where very little was known about the brain.

LUKE DITTRICH: Two millennia ago, doctors really thought nothing of performing vivisections on live prisoners in order to understand anatomy.

Thankfully, our standards of medical ethics have evolved quite a bit. But I do think that readers will be shocked to see kind of how bad things were back in the middle of the 20th century.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a very personal story for you, because the doctor who performed the surgery on Patient H.M. was your grandfather.

LUKE DITTRICH: My grandfather was a neurosurgeon. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant neurosurgeon and a renowned one. He was — he founded and was the director for many years of the Department of Neurosurgery at Hartford Hospital. He was a Yale professor. He did a lot of good.

I mean, he saved a lot of lives. He also was one of the world’s most sort of zealous proponents of psychosurgery and one of the world’s most prolific lobotomists. And his sort of driving passion for the lobotomy and for psychosurgery grew in large part out of the fact that his own wife, my grandmother, was mentally ill.

She was institutionalized in one of the same asylums that he practiced in. And he was, you know, on a kind of — on a crusade, on a sort of — on a quest to develop a cure for his own wife’s madness.

One of the things that struck me in sort of looking at the history of psychosurgery is how often, you know, how often the lobotomized individuals were women. There are a number of possible answers for why that may be so, but I think perhaps the most compelling one is that a lot of the symptoms of the lobotomy, the passivity, tractability, these were symptoms that at the time were viewed as kind of, you know, ideal elements, according to men, of feminine traits, and that, in some senses, a lobotomized woman could be viewed as almost an ideal wife, which was one of the sort of horrifying things that I was kind of grappling with as I was looking at this story.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Henry himself, how much was he aware of his own role in scientific history?

LUKE DITTRICH: He certainly didn’t have a clear awareness of his own role.

He would be told many times that he was famous in a certain sense. As the studies on him went on, you know, certain things would stick. And so he may have by the end of his life had this, you know, vague sense of his importance, but he certainly didn’t have any sort of clear sense like we do of how deeply and fundamentally important he was.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of this story goes on, right, past Henry’s life, because you raise some questions at the end about the extent of how much he was sort of controlled, how much research on him was controlled, how much we really know the story in the end.

LUKE DITTRICH: Some of the more fascinating chapters in Henry’s history really happened quite a few years after his death, just recently.

The story, in some sense, is still unfolding. The ethical questions surrounding Henry’s story to me begin in that operating room where my grandfather made that decision to operate. And I think that was a decision that deserves close scrutiny.

Afterwards, there are a number of other questions that, you know, follow throughout the six decades of experimentation that was done on him, and, you know, even after his death, what was done on him. And, you know, even after his death

JEFFREY BROWN: Including who owned his brain.

LUKE DITTRICH: Who owned his brain, exactly. A custody war basically broke out over the possession of Henry’s brain.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, we will continue that part of the story online.

And I will invite our watchers to go there later on.

For now, the book is “Patient H.M.”

Luke Dittrich, thank you so much.

LUKE DITTRICH: Thank you so much for having me.

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