Patient H.M.

by Luke Dittrich, Chatto and Windus, £18.99

Luke Dittrich’s first book is impressively well written. The grandson of a famous American neurosurgeon, William Beecher Scoville, he has woven family recollections of his grandfather, the story of Scoville’s most famous patient, Henry Molaison, and reflections on the craze for psychosurgery (that is, lobotomies) into one fascinating account.

His book makes one thankful for the pill culture of today, insofar as it has replaced the work of psychosurgeons like Scoville. “In the back wards of asylums and around the country [my grandfather] would discover a nearly limitless source of material for his experimental surgery,” he writes. Treatment in the early 20th century included hydrotherapy (cold baths), fever therapy and coma therapy (insulin). Scoville was chief neurosurgeon at Connecticut State Hospital. With 3,000 inmates, it was the largest public asylum in the world. In 1946, he performed his first lobotomy.

Dittrich raises a troubling question: the grey area between what Nazi doctors were doing, which came to be seen as criminal, and the medical “experiments” that US doctors performed on their patients. He reminisces of his grandfather: “All those asylums, all those lesions, all those broken men and women.”

There is also a Stepford Wives aspect to this troubling story: the disproportionate number of psychosurgical operations done on women. As the author observes: “The known clinical effects of lobotomy – including tractability, passivity and docility – overlapped nicely with what many men of the time considered to be ideal feminine traits.”

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