The man who stopped remembering

In today’s Times, my review of “Patient H.M”,  Luke Dittrich’s book about the strange life of Henry Molaison:

He remains a ghost in the end. The only photograph of the adult Henry Molaison to appear in this ambitious, impassioned but frustrating book is the one printed on the cover. The face is mostly concealed, a reflection of the fact that, while Molaison has been described as the most important research subject in the history of neuroscience, the medical authorities — determined to protect his privacy — kept his identity a secret. It was only on his death in 2008 that the public discovered who Patient HM was.

The American journalist Luke Dittrich had been trying to meet him for some time, but didn’t succeed in piercing the barrier erected by staff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Henry spent part of each year being tested. An epileptic who had been subjected to a recklessly invasive brain operation by a surgeon in Connecticut in 1953, when he was 27, Molaison had spent most of his adult life as an amnesiac with a 30-second memory. Incapable of generating new long-term memories, he was an intelligent man condemned to live in an eternal present, performing menial jobs, watching TV and living in a fog of blurred names and faces. Later in life, he was not even sure if his mother was still alive.

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