Henry Molaison was born near Hartford, CT, on February 26, 1926. In a sense, he died 27 years later on September 1, 1953 though he would go on to live another 55 years.
He suffered from intractable epilepsy that has sometimes been attributed to a bicycle accident at the age of seven. He suffered from partial seizures for many years, and then several tonic-clonic seizures following his sixteenth birthday. In 1953 he was referred to William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital, for treatment.
On September 1, 1953, Dr Scoville performed a highly experimental bilateral medial temporal-lobe resection on his patient. When Henry awoke, his amygdala, entorhinal cortex, perirhinal cortex and two thirds of his hippocampus were gone… as was his ability to form new memories. He was about to become the most famous amnesiac in the annals of medicine.
Henry’s profound anterograde amnesia meant he could no longer commit new events to long-term memory, unable to hold on to anything for more than a minute or two. He was also suffering from partial retrograde amnesia: the two years before the surgery were gone forever as was much of the decade leading up to it. His life as he knew it was over.
In death, as in life, the mind behind the man has proved to be equally fascinating. Immediately after he passed away on December 2, 2008, H.M.’s brain was removed and transported to the Brain Observatory at the University of California, San Diego, for a groundbreaking anatomical study. Over the course of 53 hours, his brain was first frozen, then 2401 histological sections sliced a mere 70 microns thick were stained, digitized and uploaded in real time onto the Web as 400,000 curious onlookers from both lay and scientific communities waited with baited breath. To date, millions have logged on to the website (http://thebrainobservatory.ucsd.edu/index.php) to take a peak at what the mysterious mind of H.M. might yet reveal.
Henry Molaison’s obituary, which appeared in The New York Times on December 3, 2008, perhaps stated it best when they lauded H.M. as an “unforgettable amnesiac.”
Kerry Tribe, H.M., 2009 / MIT Museum