Spotlight On…Brenda Milner: Making a little noise when she walks

Brenda Milner

Brenda Milner credits her pioneering ways in the neurosciences to her penchant for being 'nosey.'
Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

In the star-studded galaxy of academia, there are numerous brilliant teachers, trail-blazing researchers and visionary philanthropists. But there is only one Brenda Milner, a truly inspiring person who, over the course of her 89 years, has pulled off a rare trifecta by being remarkable in all three domains.

When Milner was born in Manchester, England in 1918, there was little in her immediate surroundings to suggest she would one day become one of neuroscience's luminaries, the person whom Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel attributed with creating the field of cognitive neuroscience.

Milner's father was a music critic and piano teacher who lovingly tended to what she remembers as the family's "large, overgrown garden." Her mother came from a broken home and, as such, had to abandon high school at 14 to join the workforce as a clerk. There's was a household filled with music, the classics and precious little science of any kind.

As a young girl, Milner was largely home-schooled by her father, who distrusted formal education as stifling the creative spirit. Instead he taught his young daughter Shakespeare, German and arithmetic. One day, the 6-year-old Milner answered a knock at the door to find a stern-faced school inspector demanding to know why she wasn't in school.

"My father was resting and when I told him about the inspector at the door, he told me to ask the gentleman if he could speak German," remembers Milner, who even at that early age then was fairly proficient in the language. "Obediently, I did what I was told and when the surprised inspector said ‘No,' my father suggested he should go back to school himself."

But when Milner was just eight, her father died of tuberculosis and she was enrolled at the Withington Girls' School where, despite her genetic predisposition toward the arts, she fell in love with "the beautiful logic" of mathematics, eventually going to Cambridge on a scholarship.

Once at Cambridge, Milner quickly realized she wasn't going to distinguish herself in mathematics. "I didn't want to be a mediocre mathematician who just scraped by," she says. Instead, she toyed with the idea of switching to philosophy.

"But the people at Cambridge said ‘Brenda, don't you have to earn a living eventually? Well, no one earns a living in philosophy,'" she laughs. Instead, she was steered toward psychology-a subject Milner "knew absolutely nothing about."

Almost immediately, Milner realized she had found her calling. "I'm very nosey and curious," she says, "so it turned out that I loved psychology because I was getting tools for answering all my questions."

At the outbreak of WWII, Milner's post-graduate studies in experimental psychology were redirected as part of the war effort. Eventually, she found herself as an officer in the Ministry of Supply at the Radar Research and Development Establishment where she evaluated the methods of display and control for radar operators. It was also where she met and worked with a young electrical engineer named Peter Milner.

When Peter was invited to help initiate atomic energy research in Canada, the pair were married and sailed North America aboard the zigzagging (to avoid German U-boats) Queen Elizabeth.

In 1950, already doing her PhD at McGill, Milner began studying the epilepsy patients of famed neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI). "I fell in love with the place and the work right away," recalls Milner.

It was during this time Milner met and began her seminal work with H.M., an epilepsy patient in Hartford, Conn. who suffered severe memory impairment following the removal of the medial temporal lobe on both sides of his brain. While the radical surgery, performed by Dr William Scoville, succeeded in eliminating most of H.M.'s seizures, it left him with anterograde amnesia, or the inability to commit new events to long-term memory. Although Milner worked with H.M. over the course of several decades, he never remembered having met her from one day to the next.

Having H.M. complete a series of learning tasks, Milner noticed that the only one in which he made progress through practice (virtually impossible for someone who forgets everything they did five minutes ago) was a simple motor coordination task in which he had to trace a large star while looking in a mirror. H.M. improved his performance steadily over a three-day trial, even though he had no recollection of ever having done it in the first place. The findings lead Milner to speculate that certain motor skills can be developed independently of the medial temporal-lobe system. Milner's breakthrough proved that the brain was not just governed by a solitary memory system, a revolutionary concept in the 1950s.

Milner has been blazing trails over the last 50 years, making her name as one of the most important neuroscientists of the twentieth century. Along with the accolades have come the awards. She's been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences (USA) and the Royal Societies of London and Canada and is a Companion of the Order of Canada, to name but a few of her honours.

All the while, Milner has been carefully socking away the prize money along with her life's savings. "It's funny, because I never had any money. I mean I really never had any money," says Milner. "But I've been fortunate to have been able to work this long, fortunate with my genes. I have absolutely no dependants. I live in an apartment, I don't own a car. Yes, I like nice food and good wine on occasion, but I have no wish to own things-houses, artwork, horses, whatever. Suddenly, without trying, I found that I had a little bit of money."

On Oct. 1, Milner took that "little bit of money" and, in conjunction with the launch of the MNI's ‘Thinking Ahead' Campaign announced the formation of the $1 million Brenda Milner Foundation to support postdoctoral fellowships in cognitive neuroscience at the MNI. "[Postdocs] are in a difficult spot," she says. "It is getting harder and harder to get your first academic position."
The gift is perfect Milner, someone who says "I have no children except for my students." Although she no longer conducts as much research as before, it is clear Milner is enthusiastic about teaching and about keeping her hand in the game. "I like to be part of things," she says. "I wouldn't want to be lying on a beach somewhere-I'd feel like the world is passing me by. I like to make a little noise when I walk."

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