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State Man's Tragedy Unlocked Secrets Of The Brain

H.M., Dead At 82


December 06, 2008

The man who fundamentally changed our understanding of how the brain works lived for nearly three decades in a Windsor Locks nursing home, a pleasant man with a damaged memory.

Henry Gustav Molaison, a Hartford native, existed in relative obscurity. But as "H.M.," the name used to disguise his identity, Molaison gained an anonymous sort of fame, a man who had been studied by more than 100 researchers and became a staple of psychology class lectures.

Molaison died of respiratory arrest and pneumonia at age 82 on Tuesday, 55 years after an experimental operation in Hartford removed part of his brain. The surgery left him unable to form new memories, though he held on to earlier memories and intellectual abilities.

"What we learned from him was groundbreaking," said Suzanne Corkin, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had worked with Molaison since 1962.

Scientists had previously believed that memory was located all over the brain, but Molaison demonstrated that it was localized to a small area.

Molaison's inability to form new memories also showed that short-term and long-term memory were two separate systems, not two parts of a continuum as scientists had believed.

And Molaison demonstrated the difference between declarative memory the kind that allows you to remember facts and procedural memory, the kind used for skills like riding a bike. Though he could not remember new information, Molaison could learn new motor skills.

Corkin equated Molaison's death with losing a member of her family. He never remembered who she was, but he always greeted her like a friend. He told her he thought he knew her from high school.

Corkin described Molaison as an easygoing, soft-spoken, polite man with a good sense of humor. He did not typically begin conversations, but if someone prompted him, he would talk and talk, sometimes telling the same story three times in 15 minutes.

Much of what he talked about, Corkin said, reflected his desire to do whatever he could to help people.

"He had a very positive attitude about science, about wanting to help in any way he could," said Brenda Milner, a scientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute who co-wrote the first scientific article on Molaison, published in 1957. "If he was just sitting quietly, he might say he wanted to help in any way."

But Molaison never grasped, in a lasting way, how much he had helped.

"From a personal perspective, this was a tragedy," said David Glahn, a Yale psychiatry professor and member of the Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital. "But from the perspective of science, we were able to learn so much from his personal tragedy."

Glahn knows H.M.'s case intimately, but Molaison's death offered a reminder that he and most of the rest of the world never knew something fundamental about the man.

"I've been lecturing about him and teaching about him for years and years, decades, and I've never known his name," Glahn said.

Molaison was born in Hartford in 1926, moved to East Hartford as a teenager and graduated from East Hartford High School. His father, Gustave, worked as an electrician at Baldwin Stewart Electrical Co.

An only child, he suffered from seizures. The cause of the seizures was never clear; he was hit by a bicyclist when he was 9, but such accidents would not typically have such devastating results, Milner said.

Molaison was smart, but his seizures and the medications he took for them held him back. He had a job fixing motors, but had to give it up because the seizures made it difficult for him to work, Corkin said.

By the time he was 27, he was having up to 10 minor seizures a day and at least one major seizure a week.

That was when he underwent the experimental surgery, intended to relieve epilepsy. Hartford Hospital surgeon William Beecher Scoville, an internationally known expert in lobotomies, planned to remove a larger area of brain tissue than had been taken from patients in similar surgeries. He removed most of Molaison's medial temporal lobe, including all or parts of the hippocampus and amygdala.

The surgery, which was performed either at Hartford Hospital or the Institute of Living, left Molaison unable to remember anything new for more than about 20 seconds. But it did not change his personality, Milner said.

"Your autobiography, so to speak, was stopped, but your personality doesn't change," she said.

"He told jokes," she said. "Of course, he told the same jokes over and over because he didn't remember that he told you before."

But he remembered his life before the surgery.

He could not describe specific episodes, but could talk about things like riding with his parents on the Mohawk Trail, his gun collection or roller skating.

Molaison's father died in 1966, and his mother, Elizabeth, died in 1981. For a time he lived with relatives, and in 1980, he moved to Bickford Health Care Center in Windsor Locks, where he lived for 28 years. He blended in and was "a joy" to the staff and residents, according to a statement released by Sean Carney, Bickford's administrator.

"To us at Bickford, Henry was just a regular resident in spite of his exceptional circumstances," the statement said.

Many times, Corkin said, she would tell Molaison how important he was. "I'd say, 'You know, you're really famous, you're more famous than all the doctors who study you.' He'd sort of smile," she said. "He knew. For an instant."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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