The title of this gripping book pretty much says it all about the “tragic mistake” by a brain surgeon that left 27-year-old Henry Molaison unable to remember new experiences for the remaining 55 years of his life. Athletes often credit success to “living in the now” during an event. But what if “now,” and memories of a distant past, are all you’ll ever have?
Molaison was born in 1926 in Manchester, Conn., blessed with sly wit and above-average intelligence; cursed with debilitating epilepsy. In desperation a neurosurgeon tried a targeted lobotomy in 1953, curing his epilepsy but erasing all future memories. Consider the horrible implications of this: losing your job because you can’t remember the task you started; unable to walk alone because you can’t find the way back.
No one was better suited to be his memoirist than Corkin, a neuroscientist at MIT. She was a young graduate student at McGill University when she first met Molaison in 1962 as he underwent tests at the Montreal Neurological Institute. It began an almost five-decade relationship as Corkin, among others, used insights into the wounded mind of H.M. (as Molaison is known in countless neurology texts) as keys to the mystery of the brain. H.M. was both patient and friend to Corkin, though he’d forget their many conversations within seconds and she would remain a vaguely familiar presence, perhaps a high school friend, he figured. “We watched one another age over the decades, although he did not know it,” she writes a bit wistfully.
Above all, Corkin is a scientist. She recounts in chilling, clinical detail the elaborate autopsy after his death in 2008 at 82. “Seeing Henry’s precious brain in the safety of the metal bowl was one of the most memorable and satisfying moments of my life,” she writes. The research lives on. His brain, perhaps the most studied in medical history, is sectioned in 2,401 slices. Corkin delivered a tender eulogy at his funeral. “In loving memory” is etched on his urn. He is gone, but, ironically, never to be forgotten.
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