Suzanne Corkin, cognitive scientist who worked at MIT, dies at 79
Suzanne Corkin, whose painstaking work with a famous amnesiac known as H.M. helped clarify the biology of memory and its disorders, died on Tuesday in Danvers, Mass. She was 79.
Her daughter, Jocelyn Corkin, said the cause was liver cancer.
Dr. Corkin met the man who would become a lifelong subject and collaborator in the early 1960s, when she was a graduate student in Montreal at the McGill University laboratory of the neuroscientist Brenda Milner.
Henry Molaison — known in published reports as H.M., to protect his privacy — was a modest, middle-aged former motor repairman who had lost the ability to form new memories after having two slivers of his brain removed to treat severe seizures when he was 27.
In a series of experiments, Dr. Milner had shown that a part of the brain called the hippocampus was critical to the consolidation of long-term memories. Most scientists had previously thought that memory was not dependent on any one cortical area.
Mr. Molaison lived in Hartford, and Dr. Milner had to take the train down to Boston and drive from there to Connecticut to see him. It was a long trip, and transporting him to Montreal proved to be so complicated, largely because of his condition, that Dr. Milner did it just once.
Yet rigorous study of H.M., she knew, would require proximity and a devoted facility — with hospital beds — to accommodate extended experiments. The psychology department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered both, and with her mentor’s help, Dr. Corkin landed a position there.
Thus began a decades-long collaboration between Dr. Corkin and Mr. Molaison that would extend the work of Dr. Milner, focus intense interest on the hippocampus, and make H.M. the most famous patient in the history of modern brain science.
“Sue had incredible patience; she was absolutely meticulous,” Dr. Milner, a professor in the department of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill, said in an interview. “A lot of people dabble in neuroscience; they don’t understand how many readings you have to take, and how carefully. Sue was extremely disciplined. You could absolutely trust every observation she had.”
In hundreds of studies, up to and even after Mr. Molaison’s death in 2008 at 82, Dr. Corkin provided an extraordinarily detailed picture of his medial temporal region, which contains the hippocampus, and how the surgical lesions affected his memory.
Among many other contributions, her work helped settle a debate about the function of the hippocampus in retrieving and reliving past experiences. Some scientists had argued that once a strong memory was stored, the hippocampus was not critical to retrieving it. Dr. Corkin’s work with H.M. showed that such a memory — getting lost in the woods at camp, say, or hitchhiking across the country — was still partly retrievable without the hippocampus.
She found, however, that the narrative richness of the memory was gone. Loose impressions remained, but the “story” was lost.
Gist memories, she called them.
“She was able to take this single case and do such meticulous work on the anatomy and its effects on memory that it helped settle these questions,” said Morris Moscovitch, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “That is one hallmark of her work. The other is how much she cared for H.M. She wasn’t merely using him — she became his caretaker, she took care of him like family.”
Suzanne Janet Hammond was born in Hartford on May 18, 1937, the only child of Lester Hammond, who worked in engine parts sales, and the former Mabelle Dowling, who worked for the local Department of Motor Vehicles. She grew up in West Hartford — “just down the street,” as she said many years later, from Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the brain surgeon who operated on Mr. Molaison in 1953.
It was the era of the lobotomy, and Dr. Scoville was one of a number of swashbuckling surgeons doing experimental surgeries — they would be unethical today — for a variety of mental problems, including schizophrenia and severe depression, with often disastrous consequences. Mr. Molaison was that rarest of cases: Notwithstanding the seizures, he was mentally healthy and lucid, both before and after the surgery, making him an ideal experimental subject.
Dr. Corkin, after graduating from Smith College with a degree in psychology, knew exactly where she wanted to go: to Dr. Milner’s laboratory at McGill. She focused on studying how the brain represents touch, an area of research many students found too laborious to take on.
In her later work with Mr. Molaison at M.I.T., Dr. Corkin became equal parts experimentalist, protector and advocate. She closely guarded access to Mr. Molaison, especially after his parents died and he moved in with a family friend and later to a nursing home.
Dr. Corkin lived in Charlestown, Mass. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two sons, Damon and J. Zachary, and seven grandchildren. Her marriage to Charles Corkin ended in divorce.
Dr. Corkin published more than 100 research papers, touching on topics as varied as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and psychosurgery. She also wrote or co-wrote 10 books.
But it was her relationship with H.M. that was defining. His profound deficits made their relationship anything but normal — every time she walked in the room, she had to reintroduce herself — but that repetition bred a curious bond over time.
“He thought he knew me from high school,” Dr. Corkin said in an interview with The New York Times in 2008.
After Mr. Molaison died, Dr. Corkin arranged to have his brain removed, preserved, exhaustively imaged and finally sent for dissection and electronic mapping. It became a kind of monument as well as a historical artifact and resource for further study.
In her book “Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.M.” (2013), Dr. Corkin wrote about her transition from seeing Mr. Molaison as a “subject” to seeing him as a human being. “My interest in Henry,” she wrote, “had always been primarily intellectual; how else would I explain why I had stood on a chair in the basement of Mass General, ecstatic to see his brain expertly removed from his skull?”
Still, she added: “I felt compassion for Henry and respected his outlook on life. He was more than a research participant. He was a collaborator — a prized partner in our larger quest to understand memory.”