Thursday, August 11, 2016

Patient H. M. by Luke Dittrich

Dittrich has a rich ancestry including a grandfather who was a neurosurgeon. He spent six years investigating his grandfather, patient H. M., and neuroscience. The result is a very readable and interesting book.

Patient H. M. was the most studied individual in neuroscience history. As a young boy, Henry Molaison was struck by a bicycle and knocked down. He developed seizures and memory loss. He became the subject of a vast amount of research.

Dittrich weaves the story of Henry, his grandfather, and information about brain studies. He looks at ancient work on brains, such as skulls with holes in them. He investigates brain injuries and mental illness and how they were treated, such as lobotomies, of which his grandfather did many. He tells of his grandmother and her mental illness and being confined to an asylum. The treatment in such institutions included cold water soaking, induced fever, and shock treatments. Also included are stories of major brain scientists and their work. Dittrich even adds some vignettes from his own life.

This is a personal account and a very interesting one. Dittrich has taken a complex issue and made it very readable. The intertwining of personal stories with scientific information helps make the book interesting throughout, right to the very end and the controversy over Henry's brain.

I recommend this book to those who enjoy reading popular books about science in the style of The Emperor of All Maladies or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It is not for the weak stomached, however, as some of the brain operations are described vividly, as are the conditions in mental institutions in the last century.

My rating: 4/5 stars.

Luke Dittrich has been working as a journalist since 1997. He is a contributing editor at Esquire and his articles have appeared in a variety of anthologies. A story he wrote about the survivors of a devastating Missouri tornado won the 2012 National Magazine Award for feature writing.

Random House, 464 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

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