As best he could remember, Henry Gustav Molaison never visited San Diego, spending his entire life on the East Coast. When he died late last year at the age of 82, Molaison was a man almost entirely unknown except by his initials H.M. and the fact that experimental brain surgery had erased his ability to form new memories.
He forgot names, places, events and faces almost immediately. Half an hour after lunch, he couldn't recall what he had eaten, or that he had eaten at all. His face in the mirror was a constant surprise because he remembered only what he looked like as a young man. Every question was new, even those asked just minutes before.
Yet Molaison bore this strange and unimaginable burden with grace and stoicism, allowing scores of scientists to study, probe and ponder his condition for decades, each seeking to better understand the mysteries of the human brain, memory and personal identity.
"H.M. started a revolution in the study of memory," said Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD at the time of Molaison's death. "His was an unforgettable contribution."
Molaison died of respiratory failure on Dec. 2, 2008, but his story — and his legacy — does not end in that Connecticut nursing home. Within hours of death, Molaison's brain would be scanned, removed and placed in the preservative formalin, the first steps on a journey to San Diego and a new kind of immortality.