After reading Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets and attending his talk during the discussion section, I was extremely intrigued by Luke Dittrich’s vast expertise and keen storytelling ability. Before reading, I did not know who Henry Molaison was, much less about his crucial contributions to the field of neuroscience, and Dittrich publicized a story that deserved to be told.
Since I am a massive history nerd, one part of the book I enjoyed was Molaison’s background and information about his road to becoming Patient H.
M. Walking home from the park one night when he was 8 years old, Molaison was knocked down by a bicyclist and slammed his head on the concrete pavement. The extreme head trauma he suffered that night caused unexpected consequences, and from that point on, he began experiencing severe seizures. These seizures grew in intensity, and by the time he was 27 years old, Molaison’s epilepsy controlled him, interfering with every facet of his life, especially professionally and socially.
In the midst of these hopeless circumstances, he met with William Scoville, a brilliant neurosurgeon who was experimenting with various types of neurological operations.
Scoville, the father of psycho-surgery in America, offered an innovative treatment known as lobotomy that he had performed previously on psychotic patients, and in his desperation, Molaison agreed. In the procedure, Scoville worked on the so-called “mysterious and and deep-seated structures” in the brain, removing large portions of the hippocampus and amygdala. While the seizures did ultimately cease, Molaison woke up with severe amnesia, unable to hold a conversation or remember anything for more than a few minutes at a time.
After reading and hearing about this, I understood why Molaison agreed to have this procedure done. Indulging in the knowledge and advancements of the present day, it is easy to question the logic behind removing parts of a patient’s brain given no real evidence of its effectiveness. However, at that time, Molaison’s seizures ensured that he could not live a decent life, and if the procedure had not been done, his condition would have continued to deteriorate. Lobotomies were the trendiest health craze of the 1950’s, and while it was extremely unfortunate to have to choose between epilepsy and the removal of parts of the brain, at least Molaison’s sacrifice helped thousands of other patients and advanced mankind’s neurological understanding.
The history of Patient H.M. and his procedure greatly interested me, but what truly struck me were the years of research done afterwards and the questionable ethics involved. After his lobotomy and its unplanned side-effects, Molaison was referred to a team of psychologists, and the rest is history. Patient H.M., Molaison’s new alias, went on to become the most studied individual in the history of science, a human guinea pig who never got tired of performing crossword puzzles or mazes for researchers as they struggled to uncover the secrets of the human brain. These researchers, driven by ego and the desire for recognition in their respective fields, jealously guarded Patient H.M. and his identity, making sure that only they had access to the potential of Molaison’s brain. Reading about this greatly angered me, and when I learned that Suzanne Corkin, the primary researcher throughout Henry’s life, had allegedly destroyed key files regarding his data before her death according to Dittrich, I was shocked.
The book paints Corkin as treating H.M. in a proprietary manner, which I’m not sure is fair, but her questionable ethical standards surrounding consent are truly disgusting. A man who can only retain memories for four minute intervals is incapable of giving informed consent, and researchers capitalized on this, using Molaison and his amnesia to advance their careers and prestige. In his book, Dittrich’s greatest achievement is raising uncomfortable and troubling questions about research ethics, exploitation, and informed consent in every facet of medicine. As mentioned in his talk, even though MIT and over 200 brain scientists have strongly condemned his claims about Corkin to be false, the recordings do not lie, and it is still unknown whether the public will ever be able to see these destroyed files and their importance.
In my future practice, the lessons I learned from Dittrich’s book and talk will be heavily utilized and useful. For now, the plan is medical school, and if I choose to become a doctor, the importance of informed consent cannot be stressed enough. Instead of exploiting patients and their ailments,