Brenda Milner is a Canadian neuroscientist who has worked at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (MNIH) since 1950, when she joined celebrated doctor Wilder Penfield in studying the field of clinical neuropsychology. Born in Manchester, England in 1918, Milner has become a pioneer in the study of memory and cognitive functions in humans. She was the first to study the effects of damage to the medial temporal lobe on memory through work on the famous patient, known simply as “HM.” She has been the recipient of a number of awards, including the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, which recognizes achievements of women in science.
The Daily spoke with her about working at the MNIH, her achievements, and what it has been like working as a woman in science.
The McGill Daily: What made you stay at the MNIH for so long?
Brenda Milner: McGill has always been famous for its medical school, and science in general. When I was coming to Canada in 1944, my professor at Cambridge said to me, ‘Oh, well, McGill has a very good medical school.’ And within this medical school, this institute has always been very special. I think most people would agree with me that Doctor Penfield’s greatest contribution…was his vision for an institute where he had people coming from all parts of the world. And what is quite remarkable is that today, we have the same vision. This has never died, this feel about the institute.
MD: What pushed you towards psychology?
BM: I discovered that I wasn’t going to be a great mathematician. I had a sort of romantic notion about pure logic. People at my high school wanted me to do languages, which came around easily to me, and go to Oxford. I didn’t want to go to Oxford, I wanted to go to Cambridge and do mathematics, which was the place to do mathematics in those days, probably still is. And then, you know I realized that it wasn’t my forte. Fortunately I passed my exams, but I had a chance to change to a different field. It was luck. People agree with me when I say this: people who have gone somewhere, nobody really gets anywhere in life without some luck along the way. If they tell you that they do it without having any luck, just by their effort, don’t believe them, because I don’t think that’s possible. You have to grasp opportunities before they go away. I knew nothing of psychology – they gave me a handbook on experimental psychology, like a telephone directory to take home to read during the summer, which I dutifully did. Mathematics is a very lonely occupation, and I value very much the companionship that science brings you. It was a revelation. So it worked for me, but it was luck.
MD: What motivates you to pursue your research? Is it the companionship that science brings?
BM: And curiosity. These two things. I’m very curious, and when I was young I was certainly a good observer. I’m quite observant on how people and animals behave, and then my curiosity is excited – why did that happen, and how I can study it? So it’s my curiosity. I like working with young people. I like the medical students, I think its very bad to have people segregated by age, its not natural, it’s not how families are.
MD: Have you ever felt discriminated against in your field of work because of your gender?
BM: I have never felt that at all, not in England, you know, and I haven’t felt it here at all at the neurological institute. [The MNIH], in Doctor Penfield days, it was a sort of pyramidal structure with Doctor Penfield very much at the top, and the younger people lower in the pyramid. But there were never any gender differences, and [Penfield] was also very interested in hearing what anybody had to say about his patient. He was never, ‘Oh I don’t want to hear anything from you because of your gender or anything,’ that was quite different.
MD: What advice would you have for undergraduates at McGill?
BM: I suppose to know yourself in a way. Think of the field of neuroscience, which is very exciting, you still have to ask yourself, ‘Is this right for me?’ You have to be very patient; you have to be capable of taking many many boring readings, not being bored. I don’t bore easily. You also must not go in expecting to have a wonderful discovery every week or even every month. If you get something really exciting every year, that’s good. You have to be patient, and you have to be a little bit obsessive. The other thing is that if you find you’ve chosen the wrong field, don’t hesitate to change. I obviously changed from mathematics to psychology. I know somebody that changed here at McGill from philosophy to physiology and made a huge successful career in physiology, and it was quite late. So don’t be afraid to change.