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Suzanne Corkin, 79; research expanded the understanding of memory

Dr. Corkin had at her MIT office a small rocking chair that belonged to her famous research subject, H.M., when he was a child.globe staff file 2013

Suzanne Corkin and Henry Molaison shared more than just a research relationship, though that collaboration put them in the history books. When experimental surgery left him unable to form long-term memories, he became arguably the world’s most studied brain patient. For the rest of his life, Molaison completely forgot almost everything within a minute. “Studying how Henry forgot gave us a better understanding of how we remember,” wrote Dr. Corkin, a researcher who kept watch over his well-being and chronicled his progress in academic papers for a half century, even after he died in 2008.

Their association went beyond the laboratory doors, however. Both were from Connecticut and their paths had intertwined in Hartford, where doctors removed slender slivers of Molaison’s brain during a 1953 operation. The surgery was designed to correct severe seizures he experienced after suffering a head injury when he was a boy.


“My mother attended Henry’s high school, and my father was raised in the same neighborhood where Henry lived before and after his operation,” Dr. Corkin wrote on the website for her 2013 book “Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.M.”

“I was born in the Hartford Hospital, the same hospital where Henry’s brain surgery was performed,” she recalled. “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.”

Through her research, they also forged a lasting connection in scientific journals that altered the understanding of memory and the role the hippocampus area of the brain plays in retrieving experiences.

Diagnosed with liver cancer nearly a year ago, Dr. Corkin kept working until the end, marveling at the good fortune that allowed her to keep completing tasks during what she preferred to call an “adventure,” rather than a battle with an illness. She died May 24 in the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers. Dr. Corkin was 79 and lived in Charlestown.


“I called her ‘Mommy Tsunami.’ She was a force. She was intense, full-on,” said Dr. Corkin’s daughter, Jocelyn of Boulder, Colo. “She was still working when she died. I’ve never met anyone who worked as much as my mom.”

Among those who knew Dr. Corkin well, she was famous for “always making lists,” said her son Damon of Sudbury. As her health declined and she could no longer get up, he added, she would still jot down items on a Kleenex or napkin next to her bed – “her to-do list.”

The list of what she accomplished was long. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was a professor of neuroscience emerita and principal investigator at the Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory, Dr. Corkin and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging and functional brain imaging to study learning and memory in “patients with global amnesia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease, as well as young and older individuals without neurological disorders,” according to her MIT website.

She also met annually with a group of memory researchers known as the “Charles River Association for Memory, or CRAM for short,” said Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, where he runs the Schacter Memory Lab.


Dr. Corkin “was a very good scientist and she was meticulous in her attention to detail,” said Brenda Milner, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal. Milner had been studying Henry Molaison when Dr. Corkin arrived at McGill as a graduate student in the early 1960s. “She came with a sort of light in her eyes and said, ‘I want to work on touch,’ ” Milner recalled.

Their research on Molaison’s ability to retain motor-skill memories for three days helped scientists understand “that memory is not a single faculty of the mind and led ultimately to the identification of the multiple memory systems” in the brains of mammals, according to an article by Larry R. Squire in the journal Neuron in 2009.

Collecting motor-skills data was demanding and time-consuming, yet Dr. Corkin “was very patient,” Milner said. “That painstaking attention to detail and her enormous enthusiasm – it’s a very nice combination, and she showed that always.”

Suzanne Janet Hammond was born and grew up in Hartford, the only child of Lester Hammond, an engine parts salesman, and the former Mabelle Dowling, who worked for the state Department of Motor Vehicles. She attended the private Oxford School for girls in Hartford and graduated from Smith College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology before going to McGill, from which she received a doctorate in 1964.

Dr. Corkin, whose marriage to Charles Corkin ended in divorce, spent her career at MIT. Though she made important contributions through her research on dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, Schacter said, “her main impact came through her studies of the patient H.M.”


Even though Henry Molaison forgot nearly everything immediately, “just talking to him in everyday life, you knew you were talking to an intelligent person,” Dr. Corkin told NPR in 2013. “Evidence of this is that he would spontaneously come up with very funny jokes. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and he would come up with little quips that were appropriate to a specific moment.”

When Molaison’s relatives died, Dr. Corkin became his legal caretaker. Upon his death, at 82, she arranged for his brain to be studied with MRI scans, which allowed him to keep contributing to the research that began when he underwent surgery at 27.

She, too, specified that her brain be donated for research. “She was really excited about that and happy,” her daughter said. “That kind of thing made her giddy.”

A service will be announced for Dr. Corkin, who in addition to her daughter, Jocelyn, and her son Damon leaves another son, J. Zachary II of Golden, Colo., and seven grandchildren.

With her children, Dr. Corkin emphasized the need to plan for the future and consider consequences – matters that are dealt with in the brain’s frontal lobe. “When we procrastinated while growing up, she would say, ‘Use your frontal lobes, use your frontal lobes,’ ” Damon recalled. “I don’t know how many kids got that kind of instruction from their parents.”


A strong champion of women in science and education, Dr. Corkin “was fiercely independent and happily independent. She wasn’t afraid to go out to dinner alone or go on a vacation alone,” said Jocelyn, who added that her mother was 65 when she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Like her famous research subject, Dr. Corkin possessed a sense of humor that could be subtle and spontaneous. While visiting Ecuador several years ago, she rescued and brought home a dog that was hit by a car, and named him Trooper.

“On one of the last days of my mom’s life, after a long sleep, she awoke and was hungry, and was holding a bowl of Cheerios and eating,” Damon recalled. “I said, ‘Mom, you are a trouper,’ and she gave me a thumbs-up. Then she put her hand down and said, ‘Woof-woof.’ She just never lost her sense of humor or her sense of adventure.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at