The legendary amnesiac HM — Henry Molaison — died last month at 82 years of age.
Photo: The New York Times
Together with Leborgne (also known as “Tan”, Broca’s first aphasic patient) and Phineas Gage, HM is surely one of the three most fascinating cases in the history of neuroscience.
I’m sure that a lot has been written on what HM taught us about the organization of human memory
– the existence of short and long-term forms, as well as the divide between declarative and procedural memories. I’m not inclined to repeat what others can say about HM with a lot more authority than I could. (Here, for example, is an audio from NPR that tells you everything you may want to know about him.) Instead, I prefer to write about that HM meant to me as a young guy wondering whether to pursue a scientific career and in what discipline.
Just like so many students decided they wanted to become scientists after reading “The Microbe Hunters” or “The Double Helix”, my personal epiphany came when I learned about HM’s inability to form new memories and the fact that he was, as it were, trapped in the present. To discover that there was a patient like him inspired me to believe that there was some logic to the workings of the brain, a logic that could be experimentally deciphered. I decided there and then that understanding this logic is what I wanted to do with my scientific career.
I grew older and began to know better, but my interest in memory and in HM in particular never disappeared. In fact, I always hoped I would have a chance to meet him in person. The closest I ever got was during my tenure at Nature Reviews Neuroscience, while editing this article by Suzanne Corkin on what was new with HM. As part of the article, she sent us the originals of these drawings made by the patient (read the article if you want to know what they mean):
When Eric Kandel, my PhD mentor, got the Nobel Prize, I remember a lab mate saying that it felt as if a distant relative had got the prize. To me, as delighted as I was for Eric, HM’s death evokes more strongly that feeling of familiarity; it really feels like the passing of a distant relative, one that now I can never hope to meet. May these few words serve as my personal tribute in memory of the man with no memory.