H.M.’s Brain and the History of Memory
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
, only to emerge from it fundamentally and irreparably
changed. He developed a syndrome neurologists call profound
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,
and 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
Massachusetts 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 identity.”
At a time when neuroscience is growing exponentially, when students and
money are pouring into laboratories around the world and researchers are