Now and again a student does something surprising, and turns out to be shaped by that surprising thing. A case in point: As a freshman, Brian Skotko ’01 wrote a first-person essay for Duke Magazine about his work with one of the most famous patients in medical history, an amnesiac long known simply as H.M.; on his death in 2008, he would be revealed as Henry Molaison.
Molaison had suffered from severe epileptic seizures; in 1953, at the age of twenty-seven, he agreed to experimental surgery that removed the hippocampi, as well as several neighboring cerebral structures. The seizures went away. But Molaison immediately demonstrated difficulty recalling past events. He knew about the 1929 stock-market crash and World War II. Life after that was reinvention without recollection.
Molaison found his way into Brian’s life as a student—and eventually into mine as Brian’s editor—when Brian took a course cluster through the Focus program called “Exploring the Mind." At the end of the semester, the students met with Suzanne Corkin, a researcher at M.I.T. who worked with Molaison, and who suggested that perhaps one of them might want to visit her lab. Brian pounced on the opportunity.
Brian met Molaison a half-dozen times, and later was joined by Duke linguists Edna Andrews and Julie Tetel. With each meeting, he realized, Molaison would have no memory of him from the day before.
Brian, of course, didn’t forget Molaison. He looks back on those encounters as having taught him about shaping curiosities into practical research questions, and about remaining patient-centered. As a specialist in the Down Syndrome Program at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, Brian has been a prominent advocate for children with Down Syndrome. This summer, he takes on a new position, as one of the clinical co-directors of the Down Syndrome Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Brian and I stayed in touch through his college years, while he was in medical school, and as he began his career as a physician-researcher. This spring, we found a reunion inducement in the Boston area with a new play by Wesley Savick, Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.
The play was off-base, in Brian’s view, in imagining a white-coat-clad set of researchers lacking human sympathies (and also in speculating about Molaison’s puzzle-solving methods). But Yesterday Happened got it right, he told me, in celebrating its subject’s awareness of his own role in advancing understanding of memory. Molaison never could have realized, of course, that he was also helping propel a student’s personal and professional trajectory.