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First Person

Lessons of an amnesiac

MIT neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin, author of the new book “Permanent Present Tense,” tells of her nearly five decades studying a man whose memory loss transformed science.

Corkin poses with a child’s rocking chair that once belonged to Henry Molaison.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff

Corkin poses with a child’s rocking chair that once belonged to Henry Molaison.

Henry [Molaison, 1926-2008] was intelligent and friendly. When we asked how he felt about being a research participant, he would say, “Whatever I can do to help others.” His case basically revolutionized THE SCIENCE OF MEMORY.    

Before the age of 10, he had A VERY MINOR HEAD INJURY. He wasn’t hospitalized, no concussion. But when he was 10, he started having petit mal seizures, and on his 15th birthday, he had a generalized convulsion where he was shaking, rigid, frothing at the mouth. And from then on he had more of these. He was highly medicated, but the drugs weren’t doing their job. This is very dangerous. It’s not good for your brain, it’s not good for your heart.

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In a sort of last-ditch attempt to stop the seizures, [in 1953 Dr. William Beecher] Scoville did an EXPERIMENTAL BRAIN OPERATION. The seizures were reduced, but the unexpected outcome of the operation was, within a couple of days, it was clear he’d lost his memory. He couldn’t remember where the bathroom was in the hospital, couldn’t remember the staff members taking care of him. He did, of course, remember things he’d learned before he had this operation. Before Henry, we didn’t know that the ability to establish long-term memory was localized in a specific part of the brain.

One of the more general lessons that Henry shared with us was that you can live your entire life as a person with a severe handicap and still make a contribution to the world. HE JUST CARRIED ON WITH WHAT HE HAD. He was always nice to other people. He wasn’t angry at the world. He was just a wonderful example of how to cope with tragedy and make the best of it.  — As told to Joel Brown

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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