When we heard that Luke Dittrich took 6 years to write his first book, Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets, we had a feeling it would exceed the depth and power of a decade of his magazine work. Equal parts neuroscientific investigation, unflinching biography of one of science’s most important research subjects, and frank exploration of Dittrich’s family history, Patient H.M didn’t disappoint. Dittrich is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor at Esquire, and a National Magazine Award winner. Hear him on episode #214.
Excerpt from Patient H.M.
The laboratory at night, the lights down low. An iMac streams a Pat Metheny version of an Ennio Morricone tune while Dr. Jacopo Annese, sitting in front of his ventilated biosafety cabinet, a small paintbrush in his hand, teases apart a crumpled slice of brain. The slice floats in saline solution in a shallow black plastic tray, looking exactly like a piece of ginger at a good sushi restaurant, one where they don’t dye the ginger but leave it pale. Annese takes his brush and, with practiced dabs and tugs, gently unfurls it. The slice becomes a silhouette, recognizable for what it is, what organ it comes from, even if you are not, as Annese is, a neuroanatomist.
He loves quiet nights like these, when his lab assistants set him up with everything he needs—the numbered specimen containers, the paintbrushes, the empty glass slides—and then leave him alone with his music and his work.
Annese coaxes the slice into position on the slide that lies half submerged in the tray, cocking his head, peering at it from different angles, checking to see that he has the orientation right. When you’re looking directly at the slide, the left hemisphere must be on the right side of your field of view, just as it would be if you were you staring into the eyes of the brain’s owner. Although brains are roughly symmetrical, they are not entirely so, and Annese has become familiar with the topography of this one, all its subtly asymmetrical sulci. At the very center of this slice, in an area that would normally contain a buttressing framework of neural tissue, there are instead two gaping holes, one in each hemisphere. Annese takes extra care not to tear the edges of the holes or distort them, dabbing painstakingly at their frayed perimeters with the tip of his brush. The holes are historic, precious in their own way. Annese does not want to become famous as the second doctor to desecrate this particular brain.