December 5, 2008
H. M., an Unforgettable Amnesiac, Dies at 82
He knew his name. That much he could remember.
He knew that his father’s family came from Thibodaux, La., and his mother was from Ireland, and he knew
about the 1929 stock market crash and World War II and life in the 1940s.
But he could remember almost nothing after that.
In 1953, he underwent an experimental brain operation in Hartford to correct a
, only to
emerge from it fundamentally and irreparably changed. He developed a syndrome neurologists call profound
. He had lost the ability to form new memories.
For the next 55 years, each time he met a friend, each time he ate a meal, each time he walked in the woods, it
was as if for the first time.
And for those five decades, he was recognized as the most important patient in the history of brain science.
As a participant in hundreds of studies, he helped scientists understand the biology of learning,
physical dexterity, as well as the fragile nature of human identity.
On Tuesday evening at 5:05, Henry Gustav Molaison — known worldwide only as H. M., to protect his
privacy — died of
at a nursing home in Windsor Locks, Conn. His death was confirmed by
Suzanne Corkin, a neuroscientist at the
Institute of Technology
, who had worked closely with
him for decades. Henry Molaison was 82.
From the age of 27, when he embarked on a life as an object of intensive study, he lived with his parents, then
with a relative and finally in an institution. His amnesia did not damage his intellect or radically change his
personality. But he could not hold a job and lived, more so than any mystic, in the moment.
“Say it however you want,” said Dr. Thomas Carew, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine,
and president of the Society for Neuroscience. “What H. M. lost, we now know, was a critical part of his
At a time when neuroscience is growing exponentially, when students and money are pouring into
laboratories around the world and researchers are mounting large-scale studies with powerful brain-imaging
technology, it is easy to forget how rudimentary neuroscience was in the middle of the 20th century.
When Mr. Molaison, at 9 years old, banged his head hard after being hit by a bicycle rider in his
neighborhood near Hartford, scientists had no way to see inside his brain. They had no rigorous
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H. M., an Unforgettable Amnesiac, Dies at 82 - Obituary (Obit) - NYTimes.com