My friend's father was a neurosurgeon. As a child, I had no idea what a neurosurgeon did. Years later, when I was a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at McGill University, this man reentered my life. While reading articles on memory in medical journals, I came across a report by a doctor who had performed a brain operation to cure a young man's intractable epilepsy. The operation caused the patient to lose his capacity to establish new memories. The doctor who coauthored the article was my friend's father, William Beecher Scoville. The patient was Henry.
I was trying to expand the scientific understanding of Henry's amnesia by examining his memory through his sense of touch, his somatosensory system. My initial investigation with him was focused and brief, lasting one week. After I moved to MIT, however, Henry's extraordinary value as a research participant became clear to me, and I went on to study him for the rest of his life, forty-six years. Since his death, I have dedicated my work to linking fifty-five years of rich behavioral data to what we will learn from his autopsied brain.
When I first met Henry, he told me stories about his early life. I could instantly connect with the places he was talking about and feel a sense of his life history. Several generations of my family lived in the Hartford area: my mother attended Henry's high school, and my father was raised in the same neighborhood where Henry lived before and after his operation. I was born in the Hartford Hospital, the same hospital where Henry's brain surgery was performed. With all these intersections in our backgrounds and experiences, it was interesting that when I would ask him whether we had met before, he typically replied, "Yes, in high school." I can only speculate as to how Henry forged the connection between his high-school experience and me. One possibility is that I resembled someone he knew back then; another is that during his many visits to MIT for testing, he gradually built up a sense of familiarity for me and filed this representation among his high-school memories.
Henry was famous, but did not know it. His striking condition had made him the subject of scientific research and public fascination. For decades, I received requests from the media to interview and videotape him. Each time I told him how special he was, he could momentarily grasp, but not retain, what I had said.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recorded our 1992 conversation for two radio programs, one devoted to memory, the other to epilepsy. A year earlier, Philip Hilts had written an article about Henry for the New York Times, and later made him the focus of a book, Memory's Ghost.
During his life, the people who knew Henry kept his identity private, always referring to him by his initials. When I gave lectures about Henry's contributions to science, I always encountered intense curiosity about who he was, but his name was revealed to the world only after his death in 2008.
Over the course of decades, during which I worked with Henry, it became my mission to make sure that he is not remembered just by brief, anonymous descriptions in textbooks. Henry Molaison was much more than a collection of test scores and brain images. He was a pleasant, engaging, docile man with a keen sense of humor, who knew that he had a poor memory and accepted his fate. There was a man behind the initials, and a life behind the data. Henry often told me that he hoped that research into his condition would help others live better lives. He would have been proud to know how much his tragedy has benefited science and medicine.
Through Henry's case, we gained insights that allowed us to break memory down into many specific processes and to understand the underlying brain circuits. We now know that when we describe what we had for dinner last night, or recite a fact about European history, or type a sentence on a keyboard without looking at the keys, we are accessing different types of memory stored in our brains.
Excerpted with permission from Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.M. by Suzanne Corkin. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.
I hope someone can fix this article soon. Is there any fact checking at PopSci? HM was not the victim of a botched lobotomy, it was not a lobotomy at all. It was regular brain surgery designed to cure his epilepsy.
"...Henry Gustav Molaison (February 26, 1926 – December 2, 2008), previously known as H.M.,
was an American memory disorder patient whose hippocampi, parahippocampal gyrus, and amygdalae were surgically removed in an attempt to cure his epilepsy.
He was widely studied from late 1957 until his death. His case played a very important role in the development of theories that explain the link between brain function and memory, and in the development of cognitive neuropsychology, a branch of psychology that aims to understand how the structure and function of the brain relates to specific psychological processes. Before his death, he resided in a care institute located in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, where he was the subject of ongoing investigation. His brain now resides at UC San Diego where it was sliced into histological sections on December 4, 2009..."
Suzanne LaBarre here, the editor of PopularScience.com. Thanks for reading. You're right that the procedure was intended to treat Henry's epilepsy, but it was not regular brain surgery. According to Corkin's book, Henry's surgeon later called it a "frankly experimental operation" and a "tragic mistake," and he regretted mightily what he had done.
As for the name of the procedure, I asked the author to clarify. She writes in an email:
"The surgeon, William Beecher Scoville, originally called his procedure 'medial-temporal lobotomy.' In H.M.'s operation report (1953), Scoville used the term 'bilateral medial temporal lobectomy,' and in the 1957 paper with Milner, he called it a 'bilateral medial temporal lobe resection.' Since 1957, we have used the term bilateral medial temporal lobe resection."
Hope that helps.
*Suzanne LaBarre* "Well actually perceiver..."
*Perceiver* "Don't confuse me with the facts..."
A perfectly executed info spank. Righteous!
Book review here: http://blog.brainfacts.org/2013/05/patient-zero-what-we-learned-from-h-m/#.Ua1ZZLXkvQp