Wed, May 08, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The man without memories

When an operation left Henry Molaison unable to form new memories, he became the most important patient in the history of brain science. Neurologist Suzanne Corkin worked with ‘HM’ for 46 years and her new book is both a case study and a fond memoir

By Tim Adams  /  The Observer

In all their meetings Henry betrayed only the most fleeting traces of recognition of Corkin. For all of her objective rigor, it seems she clung to those intimations of connection.

“If I said my name was ‘Suzanne,’ he would say ‘Corkin,’” she said. “However, he didn’t really know who I was. If I said: ‘What do I do?’ He would say ‘doctoress,’ which was a name he used only for me, so that was heartwarming.”

It helped that they had grown up in the same places. Corkin did one test with him where she intermingled his family photographs with her own. In one of Corkin’s pictures of her mother holding her sister, Henry recognized the park in which they stood.

It is gratifying to Corkin to know that the public memory of Molaison will long outlive them both. His unique brain will continue to be studied for years to come. Of all the hundreds of things she learned from Henry, I wonder, what are the images of him that come first to the top of her own mind in that curious process of remembering? She offers three, all pointedly emotional.

In the first, during an interview, Henry had gone to the bathroom with a nurse and when he returned she gave him her usual question: Have we spoken before, Henry? On this occasion, for whatever reason, he said: “Yes, we were speaking just now.”

Her second memory is of the last time she saw him, when he was demented and uncomprehending; she stood by him and said who she was, and she had a sense that he turned toward her with a trace of a smile.

The final memory is the oddest of all.

“It is when we put his brain on a plane to San Diego,” she said. “It was strapped into a seat of its own. I watched the plane take off on its trip across the country and I had this swelling of emotion, remembering Henry and his plane ride. It was the perfect goodbye.”

Permanent Present Tense: The Man With No Memory, and What He Taught the World by Suzanne Corkin is published by Allen Lane.

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