H.M., amnesiac, RIP

H.M., an amnesiac whose condition opened new doors in the study of memory, died on Tuesday at age 82. A 1953 brain operation left H.M., now revealed to be Henry Gustav Molaison, with no ability to form new long-term memories. From then on, every time he met someone, or experienced something, it would be just like the very first time. His short-term memory was fine. From the New York Times:
“The study of H. M. by Brenda Milner stands as one of the great milestones in the history of modern neuroscience,” said Dr. Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. “It opened the way for the study of the two memory systems in the brain, explicit and implicit, and provided the basis for everything that came later – the study of human memory and its disorders.”

Living at his parents’ house, and later with a relative through the 1970s, Mr. Molaison helped with the shopping, mowed the lawn, raked leaves and relaxed in front of the television. He could navigate through a day attending to mundane details – fixing a lunch, making his bed – by drawing on what he could remember from his first 27 years.
"H.M., An Unforgettable Amnesiac, Dies at 82"


  1. I’m literally tearing up after reading that obit. I was fine until I got to the last line “Henry Gustav Molaison, born on Feb. 26, 1926, left no survivors. He left a legacy in science that cannot be erased.” I’m working in the computer cluster now and am going to need go somewhere else so I can go cry without disturbing people.

  2. How sad. When I was a TA in grad school nearly 20 years ago, I met a similar fellow. He was an older returning student, trying to finally get a degree that an accident years before had interupted. He had a doctor’s note saying how that accident had interfered with his ability to form long-term memories. He was a really nice fellow, and seemed fairly smart. He would come to my office hours regularly, and when he would leave I always felt he understood. Yet when I graded his homework or tests, it was like we hadn’t even talked. He dropped before the deadline, tried again the next semester, and dropped again. Memory is such an easy thing to take for granted.

  3. Isn’t there also a music composer with a similar condition. I believe he can play the piano without a problem but for everything else he has no memory. Any one know his name?

  4. Wow, I would hope that someone so important to science, someone who apparently made the careers of a few scientists wouldn’t have had to finish his life in a crappy nursing home.


    You may be thinking of the music professor who was the eponymous The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, in the book of that name by Dr. Oliver Sacks.

  6. Lectroid, the man who mistook his wife for a hat had visual recognition problems. I don’t recall whether the music prof is in that book.

  7. I assume HM/Henry Molaison was the inspiration for /Memento/. Did HM do the whole tattoo-important-stuff-on-your-body thing?

    I assume he didn’t do the repeatedly-kill-some-person-who-you-think-killed-your-wife-thing.

  8. #5 posted by pbebergal

    Clive Wearing.

    Watching him attempt to understand what had happened to him early on was heartbreaking. He was still intelligent. And really angry. He’s mellower now, in his older age…childkike, almost Zen, as he is necessarily always in the moment.

  9. I *just today* taught a group of freshmen students about H.M., their first time hearing about him. Having not heard the news yet, I told them he was still alive.

    Henry Molaison, thank you. Rest easy.

  10. I saw Clive Wearing on the History Channel recently (no joke) but I can’t recall what show he was on (not a joke either).

  11. Anonymous @4: That’s so sad! The poor fellow could remember wanting to get his degree, because that was part of his life before the accident, but he couldn’t remember that he couldn’t remember, because that information came after it.

    Classes must have been a cumulative nightmare. We all know that one: there’s a test, and you don’t recall attending any of the lectures, or of registering for the class in the first place.

    Memory is indeed a thing we take for granted.

    One of my oldest and closest friends had a stroke in October of this year. He’s in his mid-40s. For a while there he couldn’t remember anything past his eighteenth year, which meant my husband and I were the only people he knew on this side of the continent.

    On one visit during that time, I noticed that he kept touching his head and his face, and looking puzzled. Finally I realized what was going on. I told him he’d gone partially bald, shaved his head, grown a moustache and goatee, gotten three rings in one eyebrow, and had a little procession of elephants tattooed around one wrist. He had us tell him the dates for all those changes. I don’t think he remembers that conversation now — he didn’t accumulate memories at all for some days after the stroke, and they’re patchy thereafter — but it consoled him that day.

  12. This is sad news. So much was learned from this man in his life, yet he will never know how influential he was. I’ve been reading about HM for years, and it is so strange to finally know his real name and life story. A professor I had always referred to him as “Hippocampus Missing”.

  13. Gilbert Anonymous here–my stupid automatic log-in doesn’t effin’ work!!

    Anyway, the guy reminds me of the 1944 Astounding Science Fiction story “Invariant” by John Pierce, about a man who took a serum that would allow instant regeneration of injured tissues, but it didn’t allow new neural pathways to form. Once his chain of thought was broken, it reverted to the state it was in before he took the serum.

Comments are closed.