Henry Molaison, known to the scientific world as H.M., passed away on December 2, 2008. Henry was known personally to many of the Society’s members who had worked with him and will miss him. In addition, all of us recognize the enormous contributions to our understanding of memory that were made possible by his generous willingness to participate in research over the last 55 years.
Below are comments from some of the scientists who worked with Henry over the years:
Sue Corkin gave the eulogy at his funeral, which she has kindly allowed us to post here:
Eulogy for Henry Gustave Molaison
December 9, 2008
Good morning! I am honored to have this opportunity to commemorate the life of Henry Gustave Molaison. I will pay tribute to two aspects of his life: his contributions to science and his personal qualities.
Henry was a partner in our research for 53 years, first at the Hartford Hospital, then at the Montreal Neurological Institute, and for the last 42 years at MIT. How did he come to be so important to science? In 1957, William Beecher Scoville, Henry’s surgeon, and Brenda Milner, a neuroscientist from Montreal, published a groundbreaking article in a medical journal that highlighted lessons learned from Henry. Before Henry, people believed that long-term memory processes were represented throughout the brain. The first lesson from Henry was that long-term memory could be eliminated by damage to a specific brain region. The second lesson was that profound memory impairment could occur with overall intelligence left intact. After all, Henry was a smart man in spite of his amnesia. For example, he knew that FDR’s relative, Teddy Roosevelt, led the charge on San Juan Hill. The third lesson was that short-term memory (like your memory for a phone number) and long-term memory (like your memory of what you did yesterday) rely on different compartments in the brain. Henry could recite back a list of numbers, but he never knew what he had for dinner the night before. He also taught us that even if you could not remember what you had for dinner last night, you could still learn a motor skill and other knowledge, without being consciously aware that you were learning anything.
I want to give you an idea of how famous Henry was – and still is. Over 53 years, he was tested and interviewed by close to 100 scientists. The original publication by Drs. Scoville and Milner has been cited in the scientific literature 1,818 times, and the patient, H.M is mentioned in 11,900 journal articles. He has given the world a remarkable understanding of learning and memory.
Now I want to tell you about the people who made it possible for Henry to make his amazing contributions to science. From 1974 until 1980, he lived with Mrs. L. H. Mrs. H. was a retired psychiatric nurse who welcomed Henry and his mother into her home in Hartford and gave them superb care. Mrs. H. would drive Henry to and from MIT several times a year and always kept us abreast of his condition. When she could no longer take care of him, he was admitted to the Bickford Health Care Center. During the 28 years that he lived there, he had a close relationship with many people on the Bickford staff. The island girls [names deleted] nicknamed Henry “Teddy” because he was their teddy bear. They gave him his meals and kept his spirits up. Others who took loving care of Henry were [names deleted]. An important part of the team was Henry’s relative, T.M., who is Mrs. H.’s son. Following in his mother’s footsteps, T. has done a superb job of overseeing Henry’s welfare, including this final farewell to Henry. All of these good people lit up his life.
And he in turn illuminated other people’s lives. He had a great sense of humor. How many times did he say, “Knock on wood” while tapping the side of his head with his fist? One day, my colleague, Jenni Ogden, went into Henry’s room at the MIT Clinical Research Center and told him that she wanted to see how well he could keep track of time. She left room at 2:05 and returned at 2:17. When she asked him how many minutes had elapsed, he replied, “12 minutes; got you there!” Smart man that he was, he had been looking at the clock on the wall and just did the math. Sometimes when we asked him a question, and he didn’t know the answer, he would say, “I’m having an argument with myself.” This phrase caught on in my lab, and now, in many parts of the world, former Corkin lab members have arguments with themselves and remember Henry.
Over the last 46 years, I have come to know Henry well, and he believed that he knew me from high school. For many of us, losing him was like losing a family member. My colleagues and I are honored to have been part of his inner circle. Today, we say good-bye to him with respect and with gratitude for the way in which he changed us and the world. His tragedy became a gift to humanity. Ironically, he will never be forgotten.
Let me share a story with you about the only time I met him. Gordon Winocur and I were testing him in Sue Corkin’s laboratory at MIT. We were interested in context effects on memory and so changed the context radically from a normally lit room and ambient noise, to a room with red lighting and some classical music playing in the background. There may have been some other changes, too, but I can’t recall. While we were chatting before the experiment, Gordon asked him something about the music and alluded to our study. HM answered, “Oh, yes. Korsakoff.” Gordon was as surprised as I was by the response. Thinking he had learned about the nature of his disorder, we pursued it further. HM said, “You know. Rimsky. Rimsky-Korsakoff.” The music was from “Scheherezade”.