The Patient H.M. Made Me Google

For readers who love Mary Roach‘s books, or were fans of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this book is for you.

As a fan of non-fiction, especially when it reads like fiction, and of medicine related topics, this book was in my wheelhouse before I opened it.

Patient HM

It is written by the grandson of a famous neurosurgeon, William Beecher Scoville, who got involved in the decades of lobotomies that were performed on patients who suffered from seizures, depression, schizophrenia, or even on women whose husbands thought they were not complacent enough. His grandfather was very well known in the neurosurgical community, so half of the book (or more) is about his grandfather’s career and how important he was to the lobotomy movement.

Another portion of the book is about the author’s grandmother, and Scoville’s wife, and how her life changes when her children are young and her husband is off performing all the lobotomies (sometimes up to 5 a day!).

And the other large portion of the book is about Patient H.M. He is one of the most studied human beings in the world, whose real name is Henry Molaison. Henry suffers from SEVERE seizures (like, hourly) after head trauma related to being hit by a car as a child. To ease the seizures, Henry’s parents present him to Scoville for a lobotomy. After this procedure, Henry’s short term memory and much of his long term memory ceases to exist, though is IQ remains normal to high. Because of this, psychologists and neurologists around the world fight for time with him to study this anomaly in an effort to further understand the human brain.

These three stories are intertwined with other scientific tidbits, political segues and historical data, including how Nazis used concentration camp prisoners for their own studies. This book results in LOTS of additional Google-time, though I did find that this book is a LOT more current than the information you find on the internet. The ending is amazing and surprising…which is hard to do in a non-fiction book in these days of the internet and Google. (Please click on links with caution, as not all the info is current or the same as what is in this book).

There were only a couple things I could have done without. There was a short side bar on the author’s personal life-his marriage, it’s failure, where he lived, his daughter- that didn’t really have anything to do whatsoever with the rest of the book. There was also a sizable section on Nazi experiments-come-torture, and while some of it was applicable to this story-the experiments pertaining to the brain- the rest was not applicable, and was disturbing enough that it made you want to skip it. While these things are interesting(?) and are factual, they weren’t all relevant (freezing/hypothermia, air pressure changes, exploding chests, gun shots to test infection, etc) to the neuroscience undercurrent of the book.

Very interesting read, full of carefully researched information on a taboo topic and disappointing time in the history of medicine.

Thank you NetGalley and Random House for a providing a free copy in exchange for an unbiased review.