The Current

Author learns dark truth about lobotomist grandfather and his famous patient

For decades, scientists studied Patient H.M. who was lobotomized in his late 20s. Now the grandson of the doctor who performed that surgery has pieced together his grandfather's track record of brain surgeries raising uncomfortable ethical questions.
Luke Dittrich writes about how his neurosurgeon grandfather, Dr. Scoville, who may have pushed the limits of science a bit too far in his book, Patient HM: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets. (Penguin Random House )

Read story transcript

Author Luke Dittrich's grandfather, Dr. William Beecher Scoville, was a renowned neurosurgeon — famous for the many minds he saved — but best known today for the one he ruined. It was a lobotomy that left Patient H.M. as the so-called "man with no memory."

"He could not create new long-term memories," Dittrich tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. His book, Patient HM: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets, tracks the story of his grandfather, the neurosurgeon who performed the infamous surgery.

Before he was Patient H.M, he was Henry Molaison  As a child, he suffered a brain injury that made him increasingly debilitated  by epilepsy. By the time he was 27 years old, he was offered hope by a neurosurgeon, Dr.Scoville, who was working on a radical brain operation that he believed  could cure epilepsy by removing deep seated structures in the brain.

Molaison took the chance.

Dittrich says the surgery didn't cure his epilepsy which was the intent of it. He tells Tremonti for 55 years, Molaison lived his life "in more or less 30-second increments" - he could not create new long-term memories.

"The present would just constantly slide off of him. He could not retain, you know, his experiences.

Dittrich tells Tremonti that " the product of this age of lobotomy sort of scientifically speaking is patient H.M. - Henry Molaison."

He says the surgery performed on Patient H.M. was a scientific breakthrough at the time because specific regions in the brain and their functions were "entirely mysterious."

"Nobody knew what they did and it quickly became apparent as soon as the operation concluded that at least one of the major functions of these regions was to to create new long term memories," says Dittrich.

Dittrich pays credit to his grandfather for savings lives over his career but says "whenever you have a situation where people become viewed as material...troubling things can happen."

He says his grandfather's "desire to advance science caused him to cross some lines he probably shouldn't have."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.

now