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How a ‘custody war’ broke out over a famous patient’s damaged brain

Jeffrey Brown talks with Luke Dittrich, author of “Patient H.M.,” at Washington’s Lincoln Theater. 

What makes you, “you”?

Surely some part of the answer is your ability to form and maintain memories. A personal history of what you have done, the people you’ve known, beautiful moments and traumas — the facts, thoughts and feelings of who “you” are.

Henry Molaison lost his ability to form long-term memories after part of his brain was removed in a surgical procedure, a lobotomy, in 1953. He would become one of the most studied humans in the history of brain science and help scientists come to understand how memories are formed and stored.


In the new book “Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets,” Luke Dittrich tells the story of the man known to science for decades under that moniker. But Dittrich does something more, bringing together history, science and even personal memoir, because the man who performed the lobotomy on Molaison was Dittrich’s own grandfather, Dr. William Scoville.

When I recently sat down to talk with Dittrich, I knew the task of capturing the full story in a short interview would be daunting. So we decided to divide the conversation into two parts. Part one, broadcast on the NewsHour, introduces Molaison, Dr. Scoville, and the incredible (and at times difficult to read and believe) tale of “psycho-surgical” procedures, a form of human experimentation performed on thousands of people from the 1930s into the 1970s.

We ended that part of the conversation where we begin here, with Dittrich raising what he sees as another troubling aspect of the story: who “owns” Molaison as a study subject, who owns the story of the research, plus the dispute over access to Molaison’s brain after his death in 2008.


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