Luke Dittrich

Luke DittrichCo-sponsors: Alpha Epsilon Delta; Alpha Iota Gamma; Frontiers Magazine; MedX; Phi Alpha Theta; Pre-Medical Society; Synapse; University Libraries’ Neureuther Library Lecture Series*

The university’s “Frankenstein” bicentennial celebration may be winding down this fall, but not the programming; many enriching events and provocative lectures are on tap this fall focusing on the still-relevant themes that Mary Shelley wrote about 200 years ago. A special focus will tackle more recent ethical implications that plague the bio-medical field.

The first Assembly Series entry touching on these issues will feature journalist and author Luke Dittrich, in conversation with WashU Professor Rebecca Messbarger, discussing “Lobotomies, Pain Guns, and Shredded Data: Patient H.M. and the Ethics of Human Experimentation.” The presentation will be held at 5 PM Sept. 27 in Umrath Lounge.

Dittrich also will participate in the medical campus’s three-day forum, “The Curren(t)cy of Frankenstein,” on Sept. 28 – 30. Visit the Frankenstein website for details.

In his book, “Patient H.M: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets,” Dittrich tells the tragic and fascinating true story of Henry Molaison, a young man who suffered from epilepsy so debilitating it had robbed him of all quality of life. In 1953, the famous brain surgeon William Scoville performed experimental surgery on the 27-year-old, removing two slivers of tissue from Molaison’s brain, as well as a small, seahorse-shaped structure called the hippocampus. At the time, it wasn’t known that this was the structure essential for creating memories.

The lobotomy relieved his seizures but left Molaison a permanent amnesiac, unable to create and retain new memories. Neither patient nor doctor realized at the time that Molaison would become the most studied human research subject ever. His enormous contribution — subjecting himself to more than a half-century of experimentation — became the cornerstone of modern memory science.

For Dittrich, who was Scoville’s grandson, Molaison’s story raises troubling questions about research ethics, exploitation, and informed consent: Given his severe incapacitation due to memory loss, how does one determine whether Molaison understood what he was consenting to as a research subject?

Dittrich will also address the firestorm of controversy that erupted after his book’s publication, when MIT—the institution that oversaw most of the research on Molaison—challenged his account.

Dittrich’s subject matter covers the same ground as Mary Shelley’s, particularly as it applies to responsibility and consent. Molaison’s tale is one of ethical dilemmas that began with his famous surgery and persisted well beyond his death in 2008. In addition to writing the book for deeply personal reasons, Dittrich set out to write a cautionary tale about how far people will go for scientific advancement, and the human cost of that progress.

“Taking a hard look at the past can help provide a clear-eyed view of the present. It’s easy to condemn what we were doing even 10 years ago, let alone 60, but even terrible things once made perfect sense. I do wonder what we’re doing today that we’ll regret tomorrow,” Dittrich stated in an interview.

“Patient H.M.” is a “New York Times” bestseller, has garnered a number of awards, and was included in “best books of the year” listings by the “Washington Post,” “New York Post,” NPR, “The Economist,” “Wired,” and “Kirkus Reviews.” Additionally, the book —  his first — won the Pen/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award as well as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Before joining Esquire and The New York Times Magazine as a contributing editor, Dittrich wrote for Atlanta magazine, The Oxford American, and Egypt Today. In 2012, he won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing for his Esquire story covering the Joplin, Missouri tornado.

For more reading

 Luke Dittrich: selected articles

The New York Times: The Brain That Couldn’t Remember

NPR: The Lobotomy Of Patient H.M: A Personal Tragedy And Scientific Breakthrough

The Atlantic: A Book About Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient Sparks Controversy

*This event is part of the Neureuther Library Lecture Series. The Neureuther Lecture is made possible due to the generosity of the late Carl Neureuther, a Washington University alumnus who sought to encourage students to read for enjoyment throughout their lives.