Dr Brenda Milner, CC
For thirty years, Brenda Milner, a neuropsychologist with the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), worked with a patient known as HM. Through her encounters with him, Milner would establish her reputation as one of the most important neuroscientists of the twentieth century, and make HM famous. Yet after three decades, he never remembered her name.
HM had lost the ability to convert short-term memory into long-term after an operation. Through rigorous experiments, Milner discovered that HM could learn and remember particular types of tasks, and that his memories of the past before the operation were seemingly intact. With this revelation, Milner established that people have multiple memory systems, governing different activities like language or motor skills, opening the way for a greater understanding of how the brain works.
Milner also conducted much of the early work that established how the different hemispheres of the brains interact, which has had an enormous impact on understanding cognitive learning, language, sensations and emotions.
Milner began work at the MNI in 1950 while a graduate student under McGill professor Donald Hebb. At the MNI, she designed and carried out rigorous tests of Wilder Penfield’s neurosurgical patients, which helped to define the functional areas of the brain. Milner pioneered an entirely new scientific discipline – Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel described her work as creating the new field of cognitive neuroscience by merging neurology and psychology.
Recognition of her work was almost immediate, and continues today. The Dorothy J. Killam Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the MNI and McGill University, Brenda Milner has been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences (USA), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Canada. In 2005, she was awarded the prestigious international Gairdner Award and in 2004 she was promoted to a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour within the Order.
Milner ascribes her success partly to being what she calls "a noticer." "The thing that has driven me my whole life is curiosity. I am incredibly curious about the little things I see around me."