A celebrated researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, Brenda Milner turns 100 years old today. During her storied career at McGill, she has made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of human memory. Milner is the Dorothy J. Killam Professor at The Neuro, and a professor in McGill’s Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery.
Born on July 15, 1918, in Manchester, UK, Milner came to Canada in 1944 after serving as an officer in the Ministry of Supply during the Second World War. The war had interrupted her psychology studies at Cambridge, but Milner finished her PhD at McGill University under psychologist Donald Hebb in 1952. Her 60-plus-year career at McGill began with her appointment to a tenured position studying epilepsy patients at The Neuro.
Milner’s discoveries are in large part thanks to her thorough and methodical long-term studies on patients before and after surgery. Her most famous subject was Henry Molaison (identified as “H.M.” to protect his privacy), a 29-year-old Connecticut man who underwent an experimental operation removing portions of his brain to relieve severe epileptic seizures. The surgery left him unable to add events to his long-term memory. Using a drawing task, Milner noticed that Molaison could learn to draw figures more efficiently over time, even though he had no recollection of practicing the skill. This proved long-term memory and motor memory were separate systems in the brain.
Prof. Milner has received numerous awards and accolades for her scientific discoveries—including receiving the National Assembly of Quebec’s Medal of Honour and being named Commander of the Order of Montreal during the same week earlier this year.
Prof. Milner still keeps regular office hours at The Neuro. “Rita Levi-Montalcini [the late Italian neurobiologist] is my role model and she lived to be 103,” she says. “I’m surprised to find myself at 100 years of age but I have every intention of continuing for many more birthdays.”
Brenda Milner’s life and career are being widely celebrated. Milner’s childhood alma mater, Withington Girls’ School, released a video birthday card honouring their accomplished alumna . (As Milner once told the Reporter, it was at Withington that she fell in love with “the beautiful logic” of mathematics, which led to a scholarship at Cambridge.) The Neuro has been sharing interviews and ephemera on #MilnerMondays through social media. On September 6 and 7, scientists from around the world, including many of Milner’s former students, will come to McGill for the Brenda Milner Centennial Symposium.
As for Prof. Milner herself, the dedicated Manchester City F.C. fan plans to celebrate her birthday by watching the World Cup finals, before attending a party in her honour.