Monday, August 15, 2016


"Bringing new life to ‘Patient H.M.,' the man who couldn't make memories" PBS NewsHour 8/9/2016


SUMMARY:  His story is a staple in psychology classes, but his identity wasn't known for years:  Henry Molaison, the man who lost his ability to form new memories after a lobotomy.  In “Patient H.M.:  A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets,” Luke Dittrich paints a picture of the life of the scientific legend.  Dittrich discusses his book and personal connection to Molaison in a conversation with Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  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.

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