244: The Self-Empowered Woman: Brenda Milner

Dear Followers,

As many of you know, Tony (which, of course, means me too) is wrestling with some fairly serious health problems right now. Mildly overwhelmed with hospital/doctor/medications/etc., I thought that this might be the perfect time for me to send out a short blog about a gifted medical researcher—unique for both her gender and her age. Please continue to send your positive energy and good wishes—I promise to keep you posted…

Today, I‘d like to introduce you to an amazing woman who gives new meaning to the concept of “admirable work ethic.” Brenda Milner—at the age of 98—is a highly-respected professor in the department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University in addition to being a professor of Psychology at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Most of us can’t even imagine what it would be like to be 98 years old, much less still be at the center of an extremely long-lasting exciting scientific career (Chapter 7: Magnificent Obsession).

Born on July 15th 1918, in Manchester, England, she enjoyed a remarkable childhood. Her father was a music critic, journalist and teacher while her mother studied singing. When she was six months old, she and her mother contracted the influenza that became the Pandemic of 1918. It killed between 20 and 40 million people—more than had been killed in World War 1. In time, they both recovered.

Even though she grew up in a musical household (Chapter 9: Music), it never piqued her interest as a potential career. Until she was eight years old, her father tutored her in the arts and in mathematics. Then she went to Withington Girls’ School, which allowed her to qualify for Newnham College, Cambridge, where—after receiving a scholarship in 1936—she studied mathematics. She was one of only 400 women admitted to this prestigious program. But realizing that math in such a competitive environment was too challenging for her, she changed her major to Psychology (Chapter 14: Selective Disassociation), and graduated in 1939. It was the beginning of a brilliant career focused on understanding on how the brain works.

Today, this amazing age-defying woman currently holds more than 20 honorary degrees from different universities across Canada, Europe and the United States (Chapter 13: More Than Meets the Eye). Dr. Milner may not be a household name, but she is considered by many to be “the founder of Neuropsychology.”
Brenda is best known for discovering the seat of memory in the brain, and she is currently exploring the interaction between the brain’s left and right hemispheres. During her 70-year career, she has worked tirelessly to clarify the function of different brain regions, and has done so by scrupulously testing people with brain lesions.

Part of the reason that Dr. Milner has been able to defy the odds, and continue her career for such a long time is that she has won a number of awards that include funding for additional research (Chapter 8: Turning No Into Yes). Her workspace is a ten minute walk from her home in Montreal, and as a “senior, senior researcher” she only goes into her office three days a week.

In 1941, after several more years at Cambridge, she met an electrical engineer who was also involved in radar research for the war effort. They married in 1944, and traveled from England to Boston with British “war brides.”

They moved to Canada (Chapter 14: Selective Disassociation), and she began teaching psychology at the University of Montreal; over the next several years, she earned her Master’s and two Doctorate degrees (Chapter 10: The Critic Within). Dr. Milner is best known for her major contributions to the understanding of how the frontal lobe functions when it comes to memory processes and organizing information.

Back in the 1950s, Dr. Milner changed the way scientists think about brain function and memory formation. She did this by closely observing a 29-year old Connecticut man who was a patient in search of relief for his epileptic seizures (Chapter 11: Risk Addiction). After surgery, his epilepsy was cured, but he could no longer form new memories. Dr. Milner was able to demonstrate that there are two systems in the brain for processing memory: one (explicit) handles experiences, faces and names, and the other (implicit) handles skills—like driving or playing the piano. This proves that the brain’s two halves essentially divide up our mental workload.

It is now commonly accepted that the brain’s left hemisphere focuses on language and reasoning while the right is more aesthetic and intellectual. Thanks to Dr. Milner, people who suffer brain injuries today are better able to understand and adapt to the challenges they face.

Currently, there is a strong push toward bilingual education, and Dr. Milner’s research on the neural substrates of unilingual and bilingual speech processes is what probably laid the cornerstone for this movement. The next time I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself because Je suis fatigue or Yo soy cansado I promise to use my neural pathways to remember the astonishing example of 98-year old Brenda Milner. Obviously, she has spent decades refusing to even acknowledge the self-indulgent concept of “age” or of “being tired.”

About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.