Thursday, August 25, 2016

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets - Luke Dittrich

FTC Compliance Statement: I received a free, time-limited electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via in exchange for my honest review, which is provided below. I have not been otherwise compensated for this review in any way and my opinion is my own. 

This non-fiction book reminded me of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in that both books examine the life of a person who became a source of medical knowledge in a way that may or may not have happened with their consent. Both books also explore what it means to be someone who can give consent, and the role of medical personnel who want to advance science and how that affects the way they approach patient care. One big difference is that the author of this book has a personal connection to the titular patient - his grandfather was a pioneer in surgical lobotomies, which were fairly commonly done at the beginning of the 20th century, mainly to people who had been committed to a mental hospital. 

I won't get into the more disturbing aspects of how many people were committed and subsequently lobotomized for things we generally consider to be normal today. I will say that the author does a nice job of discussing the history of neuroscience/neurology/psychiatry and detailing how these operations helped us to understand the workings of the brain in general. Much of our current knowledge of how memory works comes from the author's grandfather's work in general and the subsequent studies of Patient H.M. in particular. 

Ultimately though, like most stories about humans, many problems were created due to childish infighting and territorial behavior on the part of scientists. What a shame. Imagine how much we could learn and advance if we weren't always operating on an "Animal Farm" level. All in all, however, this was a fascinating book. If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or the books of Oliver Sacks, this should be right up your street as well. 

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