ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:
The story of Henry Molaison is a sad one. Known as Patient H.M. in the medical community, he lost the ability to create memories after he underwent a lobotomy to treat his seizures. He earned a place in history, though, because his case taught scientists a lot about how the brain creates and stores memories.
Luke Dittrich is the author of a new book called "Patient H.M.: A Story Of Memory, Madness, And Family Secrets." He's also the grandson of the doctor who performed Patient H.M.'s lobotomy. We reached him at WGBH in Boston, and I asked him to begin by telling me more about Patient H.M.
LUKE DITTRICH: A lot of what we know about how memory works came from more than a half century of experimentation on Patient H.M., but before he was Patient H.M., he was a man named Henry Molaison. He was deeply and almost catastrophically epileptic. And so my grandfather who was a renowned neurosurgeon offered Henry's family hope in the form of an experimental brain operation. And they, you know, in their desperation, they said yes. And so my grandfather went in, and he removed significant portions of Henry's hippocampus, amygdala, uncus, entorhinal cortex.
And although it may have had some effect on sort of alleviating the seizures, the main thing that the surgery did was render Henry profoundly amnesic. He sort of lived the rest of his life in more or less 30-second increments. His loss, though, was our gain, ultimately. He led to a profound kind of revolution in our understanding of how we create memories and the different sort of memory systems that we have in our brains and our minds.
AUBREY: Now, your book definitely covers a lot more than just H.M. Tell us about your grandfather.
DITTRICH: So he died when I was 9 years old, but he always sort of loomed large even when I was a kid as this charismatic and dashing character. I think somebody once described him as like, you know, James Bond with a scalpel.
But he also was one of the leading proponents in America of so-called psychosurgery which we commonly think of as, you know, the lobotomy that is surgical treatments for mental illness, the idea that you can treat insanity or basically all sorts of mental illnesses by destroying different parts of the brain. He believed in this.
AUBREY: Your grandfather performed a lot of lobotomies. He did this on a range of patients, many of whom were institutionalized. Who were these people and what kinds of medical conditions did they have?
DITTRICH: So most of them were women. My grandfather I don't think ever went too, too young, but I know some lobotomists operated on people as young as 7 years old.
AUBREY: For what reasons?
DITTRICH: Well, often you'd find that they would do it for what we would consider to be almost, you know, normal, child-like behavior, you know, to treat juvenile delinquency or hyperactivity or misbehavior of all sorts of, you know, vague description. And it was also used to treat, quote, unquote, "conditions" that were not conditions at all. People were lobotomized for homosexuality.
AUBREY: Wow. So really anything outside the social norm of the day would have made you a candidate for a lobotomy?
DITTRICH: That's not too far from the truth. I mean, there was certainly a period when if you strayed too far outside of certain lines, you might wind up in an operating room.
AUBREY: Well, you learn from at least one source that perhaps your grandfather performed a lobotomy on your grandmother. Is that right?
DITTRICH: Well, as you say, this is something that one source told me - a man who was in a position to know. My grandmother in 1944 had a legitimate breakdown. And that breakdown involved hallucinations, and it involved a suicide attempt. And she was put into this very upscale asylum, the Institute of Living.
And even putting aside the question of whether or not my grandfather operated on her, what she endured was really terrifying. I mean, to be a woman in a mental institution in the 1940s was to be sort of living a horror story. And she underwent something called pyretta (ph) therapy, for example, which I hadn't even heard of. It's otherwise known as fever therapy where they would basically, you know, lock you into a brass coffin and then heat up the inside until you developed a fever of as high as 105 degrees, and they would keep you there for eight hours a day sometimes for a week straight.
And that was thought to have sort of a pacifying effect on patients who were mentally disturbed. And thinking back to sort of the buried secrets that were there that I didn't see, that nobody saw - it's hard. You know, this is a book that I wrote about memory and how memory works, and one of the strange sort of side effects of working on this book is that it has shifted and changed some of my own memories from my childhood.
AUBREY: Luke Dittrich is the author of "Patient H.M.: A Story Of Memory, Madness, And Family Secrets." Thanks so much for joining us, Luke.
DITTRICH: Thank you for having me.
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