• Patient H.M.

  • A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
  • By: Luke Dittrich
  • Narrated by: George Newbern
  • Length: 14 hrs and 34 mins
  • 4.2 out of 5 stars (261 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

“Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King”* in this propulsive, haunting journey into the life of the most studied human research subject of all time, the amnesic known as Patient H.M. For listeners of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks comes a story that has much to teach us about our relentless pursuit of knowledge.

Winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner

Named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post , New York Post, NPR, The Economist, New York, Wired, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage

In 1953, a 27-year-old factory worker named Henry Molaison - who suffered from severe epilepsy - received a radical new version of the then-common lobotomy, targeting the most mysterious structures in the brain. The operation failed to eliminate Henry’s seizures, but it did have an unintended effect: Henry was left profoundly amnesic, unable to create long-term memories. Over the next 60 years, Patient H.M., as Henry was known, became the most studied individual in the history of neuroscience, a human guinea pig who would teach us much of what we know about memory today. 

Patient H.M. is, at times, a deeply personal journey. Dittrich’s grandfather was the brilliant, morally complex surgeon who operated on Molaison - and thousands of other patients. The author’s investigation into the dark roots of modern memory science ultimately forces him to confront unsettling secrets in his own family history and to reveal the tragedy that fueled his grandfather’s relentless experimentation - experimentation that would revolutionize our understanding of ourselves. 

Dittrich uses the case of Patient H.M. as a starting point for a kaleidoscopic journey, one that moves from the first recorded brain surgeries in ancient Egypt to the cutting-edge laboratories of MIT. He takes listeners inside the old asylums and operating theaters where psychosurgeons, as they called themselves, conducted their human experiments, and behind the scenes of a bitter custody battle over the ownership of the most important brain in the world. Patient H.M. combines the best of biography, memoir, and science journalism to create a haunting, endlessly fascinating story, one that reveals the wondrous and devastating things that can happen when hubris, ambition, and human imperfection collide.

“An exciting, artful blend of family and medical history.” (The New York Times)

* Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

©2016 Luke Dittrich (P)2016 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King in a piercing study of one of psychiatric medicine's darker hours.... A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation." (Kirkus Reviews)

"Patient H.M. tells one of the most fascinating and disturbing stories in the annals of medicine, weaving in ethics, philosophy, a personal saga, the history of neurosurgery, the mysteries of human memory, and an exploration of human ego." (Sheri Fink, MD, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Five Days at Memorial)

“In prose both elegant and intimate, and often thrilling, Patient H.M. is an important book about the wages not of sin but of science. It is deeply reported and surprisingly emotional, at times poignant, at others shocking.... A scintillating book, infused with humanity.” (The Washington Post)

What listeners say about Patient H.M.

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  • Overall
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    4 out of 5 stars

Overall enjoyable but a bit long winded

I really enjoyed the story overall, but it seemed to go back and forth a lot and veer off on loosely related side tangents. I think some of the extra stuff could have been cut out but overall very interesting story regarding HM as well as the personal family story. I do think the parts about Suzanne had a very negative tone, and could have benefitted from more unbiased story telling.

2 people found this helpful

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Boring writing and narration

Had to abandon it after a few chapters, unfortunately. Narration makes it a chore to listen to

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Fascinating!

A marvelous neurological biography full of medicine, history and human pathos! Amazingly good! I have read a lot in this field and this is truly a great book.

1 person found this helpful

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Sort of misleading title

Based on the titled I thought this would be a book very much focused on patient HM. However at times I felt like HM was just a side character to the authors family story. The last couple of chapters that really focus on the science and research of HM were how I thought the book should have been portrayed all along. Overall not a bad read however it should have been titled and marketed as a story about the doctor who made patient HM. Not the story of patient HM.

3 people found this helpful

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Riveting material; disapointing execution

Meandering tangents -- both personal (e.g. birth of author's daughter and path to career in journalism ) and general historical (e.g. Nuremberg) -- impede any satisfying overarching narrative.

2 people found this helpful

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More about the author than H. M.

The author writes more about his grandfather who ruined the brain of H.M., his institutionalized grandmother and himself than H.M. himself. An abridged version without his personal story would have been welcome. Can only recommend because of the transcripts of conversations with H.M.
To the author, you aren’t special because your grandfather was a brain butcher. No one cares about your personal story.

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Of two minds about it

This story is fascinating and thoroughly detailed without being boring. I struggled with the morality of it though; considering how much has evolved in medical ethics, it was at times heartbreaking to hear how things used to be or how some doctors felt about their practice.

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A complete picture of the history of science

Love this book! It offered such an interesting and dramatic view of the important people and events in the development of neuroscience - never a world of black or white; and it’s a continuous tug-a-war at the balance of scientific advancement and ethics. Even more striking is the data protectionism that’s told at the end of the stories.

I highly recommend it to anyone, and it could be a must-read for those working in science.

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Fascinating (and Disturbing) Read

What did you love best about Patient H.M.?

Patient H.M., aside from Phineas Gage, is probably one of the most well known figures we learned about in my graduate neuroscience classes. His contribution to our understanding of memory cannot be emphasized enough. Although we spent a great deal of time in my graduate classes learning about what he contributed to science, he was still alive at the time and therefore we learned nothing about who he was as a person. This book fills in those gaps and gives us a glimpse into Henry as a human being. What's all the more unique is that the author is the grandson of the surgeon that performed Henry's life changing (and quite frankly horrific) operation. It was shocking to read about some of the things neurosurgeons were doing in those days without the slightest bit of evidence that their surgeries were beneficial. Although some aspects of the author's personal life could have been left out (the author's path to journalism and the birth of his daughter, for example) I found his Grandmother's story interesting and it tied in well to Patient H.M.'s story. The story does also jump around a bit within and between chapters, so it was slightly confusing at times, but overall I enjoyed this book.

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Interesting story about a notorious neurosurgeon and his patient

I enjoyed the book. As a neurosurgeon, I felt that some of the neurosurgical commentary could use some editing and the pronunciation by the reader was choppy, but overall it was a very enjoyable listen.