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Luke Dittrich discusses ‘Patient H.M.,’ his new book on lobotomy and medical ethics

Luke Dittrich, author of "Patient H.M."

Luke Dittrich, author of "Patient H.M." Credit: Matt Moyer

The Diane Rehm show spent a full hour on Luke Dittrich’s first book. It’s been featured on and excerpted in The New York Times Magazine. But this last coup triggered a backlash — a letter-to-the-editor from some 200 neuroscientists complaining that Dittrich’s reporting was “biased and misleading.”

To understand the accolades and the brickbats, open the riveting “Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets” (Random House, 440 pp., $28). H.M. was Henry Molaison, arguably the most important patient in the history of brain research.

“It’s a story about science, and about nature, human and otherwise,” Dittrich writes in his prologue. “And it begins, like a lot of stories do, with a fall.”

Henry fell during the Great Depression, when a bicyclist knocked him down in Hartford, Connecticut. The little blond boy suffered a concussion, and, beginning the next day, epileptic seizures. In 1953, when Molaison was 27, a man stepped in to recommend “psychosurgery.”

Dr. William Scoville, a zealot for lobotomy, cut away most of Molaison’s hippocampus. Like many subjected to the now discredited operation, H.M. “was known for his outward placidity,” Dittrich writes. But uniquely, this particular procedure transformed H.M. into a scientific golden goose. From the moment he awoke, he was unable to form new memories.

The first kicker: Scoville was Dittrich’s grandfather. The second: the doctor’s ardor for lobotomy stemmed from his anguish over his wife’s mental illness. And the third is that psychologist Suzanne Corkin, an M.I.T. professor and principal investigator into H.M., told Dittrich that she had shredded most of her decades of original research — a shocking assertion that M.I.T officials contest. (Corkin died in May.)

Dittrich, 43, took questions from Newsday from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Might Professor Corkin have told you she shredded her research to stymie your request to see the original records?

I want to be completely clear on this: the issue of shredding documents came directly from Sue Corkin. She told me what she told me, in her own words, on tape, and I reported the conversation. I had no reason to disbelieve her, but if it does turn out that what she told me is not true, and she did not in fact shred documents, I don’t know why she would have misled me.

How did you become interested in Patient H.M.?

Patient H.M. has been part of my family lore for as long as I can remember. As soon as I knew in any serious way that writing was something I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to tackle this story about amnesia, memory, human experimentation and medical ethics. It’s such a provocative, rich period in research, I would have been drawn to it even without my grandfather’s connection.

Did you think of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” as a template?

Maybe not as a template, but definitely as an inspiration. I absolutely adored that amazing and powerful book [about a Baltimore woman whose cervical cancer was turned without her knowledge into the wildly profitable first immortal human cell line]. Right after I got the book deal with Random House, my editor Andy Ward said my first homework assignment was to read Skloot’s book. I devoured it.

Skloot has said she struggled over injecting herself into the Lacks story. You?

The story almost required that my family connection and my grandmother come into it. I did worry if my pyramid climb [in Egypt] was a step too far [illustrating the parallel risk-taking of Scoville and Dittrich]. I don’t know what the right balance is. I always feel more comfortable writing about others than myself.

You describe the approach to an injured brain as “protect it when possible, keep it clean, don’t muck about inside. That was the status quo for thousands of years. Until suddenly it wasn’t.” What happened?

I’m not a doctor, but there seemed to have been a constellation of factors. For most of human history, mucking about would have been fatal. Not until modern anesthetics, not until antiseptic operating procedures, was psychosurgery even possible. But you also had to have an attitude of “not only can we, but we’re entitled to do this.” “Dominion” might not be the right word, but something allowed them to feel capable of lesioning other people’s brains.

You note that women were much more likely to undergo lobotomies. Did you pin down the proportions?

I don’t have the numbers, but the disproportion is clear and undisputed. The side-effects — tractability, passivity — overlap with what men of the era believed were ideal feminine characteristics. Men with surly dispositions were not being lobotomized at the same rate as women with similar temperaments. My grandmother’s psychiatrist wrote that my grandfather was “truly devoted and loyal to her, but has upset her by mild promiscuity.” I was enraged when I read that. Her psychiatrist was saying one symptom of mental illness was her sensitivity to his infidelity, a deeply misogynistic perspective.

What do you want your book to accomplish?

For over six decades now, Henry’s story has been shaped and controlled by people who’ve had an interest in telling that story in a very particular way. One of the things I hope my book accomplishes is to begin to liberate Henry’s story, to take it back.

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