Cheers and standing ovations were the order of the day as Brenda Milner was awarded the McGill University Medal for Exceptional Academic Achievement, during Tuesday morning’s Health Sciences Convocation Ceremony.
When Stuart “Kip” Cobbett, Chair of the Board of Governors, announced Milner as the recipient of the McGill Medal, the entire audience – including the platform party – jumped to their feet to clap and cheer in a spontaneous display of admiration and affection that pretty much sums up the McGill community’s feelings for the iconic Milner.
And, holding hands with Principal Suzanne Fortier and Provost Christopher Manfredi, a visibly thrilled Milner showed that the feeling is entirely mutual.
David Eidelman, Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, paid tribute to the Dorothy J. Killam Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), calling her “one of the greatest neuroscientists of the 20th Century.”
In typical fashion, Milner reacted to the weighty praise by raising her eyebrows and shaking her head ever so slightly with a whimsical grin, as if to say, “oh, come on now.” This elicited chuckles from the graduating students sitting close to the stage.
But, modest as she may be, Brenda Milner truly is a giant in her field – something Eidelman highlighted in his remarks.
“Over the course of her career, her research has had a transformative influence on scientists around the world,” he continued, citing Milner’s ground-breaking work with patient HM. “The origins of modern cognitive neuroscience of memory can be traced directly to her rigorous and innovative studies.”
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 has had an extraordinary influence on the shape of neuroscience, unraveling the mysteries of the brain during her six-decade-long career. Her fundamental discoveries about memory and brain function 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.
Her discoveries on hemispheric interactions and the crucial function of specific brain regions such as the hippocampus have directly affected the lives of patients undergoing neurosurgical procedures around the world.
Milner remains active in the field and continues to teach and mentor the latest generation of scientists and doctors. In 2009, she announced The Brenda Milner Foundation, which underpins her commitment to future scientists and provides opportunities for those around the world to experience the dynamic academic and clinical environment at the MNI. The Foundation supports and fosters young researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience through postdoctoral fellowships at the MNI.
Her scientific contributions have been recognized by more than 20 honorary degrees and many prestigious awards from Canadian and international scientific societies. She is a fellow of the Royal Society (UK), the Royal Society of Canada and the National Academy of Sciences (USA), and has received numerous prizes and awards including the International Balzan Prize, the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, the Dan David Prize and the NSERC Award of Excellence.
In his closing remarks, Eidelman paid tribute to Milner’s incredible body of work – one that just keeps growing. “An active researcher at the age of 98, Professor Milner is an inspiration to us all,” he said.
Right on cue, the audience and platform members jumped to their feet and, once again, filled the tent with the warmest cheers and applause.