He did earn a place in history, though. His case taught scientists a lot about how the brain creates and stores memories.
“A lot of what we know about how memory work came from more than a half-century of experimentation that was conducted on Patient H.M.,” says Luke Dittrich, author of the book Patient H.M. : A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets.
Dittrich, who is also the grandson of William Scoville, the doctor who performed Patient H.M.’s lobotomy, tells NPR’s Allison Aubrey that the story is one of both personal tragedy and scientific breakthrough.
“It’s hard to argue that it was a good outcome for him. But it’s one of those sort of murky cases that you find in the history of medicine, in the history of science, where his tragedy — it was a boon to science,” Dittrich says. “We’re still learning from him now.”
Interview highlights contain web-only extended answers.
On Patient H.M.’s backstory and his contributions to medicine
Before he was Patient H.M., he was a man named Henry Molaison. He grew up in the Hartford area in Connecticut, and his story really begins when he was 8 or 9 years old, in the mid-1930s.
He was walking home from the park late one night, got knocked down by a bicyclist and hit his head. And shortly after that, he began experiencing seizures.
His seizures got worse and worse over the years, until by the time he was 27 years old, he was deeply and almost catastrophically epileptic. He would have these major seizures, sometimes multiple times a day, and it had a terrible impact on sort of all aspects of his life — his social life, his professional life.
His high school principal wouldn’t let him walk across the stage during graduation because he worried that Henry would have a seizure and cause …