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Brenda Milner in her apartment in Montreal, on March 9.Alexis Aubin/The Globe and Mail

Live to 104, like Brenda Milner has, and you will have some stories. Spend most of that time studying the damaged brain, like she also has, and you will really appreciate them.

Sitting surrounded by potted plants and late winter sunlight in her apartment near McGill University, Dr. Milner unspools memories like someone who knows they aren’t guaranteed.

She only recently retired, right around her hundredth birthday, from the world-famous Montreal Neurological Institute, where for 70 years she helped map the brain.

Her most famous patients suffered from amnesia and lived in what was almost a permanent present. After a 10-minute session, they could not remember her.

As if to compensate – and as she works with a friend to catalogue her life for a biography – she seems to remember almost everything.

Childhood field hockey games (“I played on the wing and I whacked people’s ankles!”) are as thrilling as the breakthrough cases that made her a giant of neuroscience and a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Remembering is half the thrill, whether a passage from Macbeth (“Screw your courage to the sticking point and we’ll not fail”) or the crush of fans at a soccer match holding her small body in the air. “My feet were not on the ground!” she recalls, delighted to recall.

Of course, she remembers Henry Molaison. In 1953, the young epileptic man had surgery to remove both his hippocampi – seahorse-shaped grey matter deep below the cortex – and lost the ability to form new memories. When she found out, Dr. Milner took the night train down to Hartford, Conn., and led him through some tests. After a few meetings, she realized this was going to be a one-way relationship – “He didn’t know who I was!” – but also noticed he was getting better at a test, tracing the outline of a star in a mirror, that he had no recollection of performing.

Scientists had been looking for a memory molecule or claiming that the faculty was distributed throughout the brain. Now it was all but settled: memory had a physical location in a particular brain structure, or rather several. Long-term, short-term, and muscle memory were physically distinct. H.M., as he was known in his lifetime, became arguably the most important neurological patient in history.

It was the moment that made her career – seahorse prints and statuettes still dot her apartment; the honorary degrees are in an archive – but she is just as inclined to remember smaller, more intimate moments of a long life that has made her a hero to many Canadian scientists.

Young Brenda Langford was raised in Manchester by a family of market gardeners, and was forever surrounded by flowers. “I used to lose myself on purpose in the delphiniums,” she said.

As a little girl she caught the Spanish flu, about a hundred years before catching COVID (twice), which must make her one of the few people to survive both.

Her father Samuel Langford was a well-known music critic for The Guardian and a bohemian parent who home-schooled her for years, emphasizing the very English subjects of Shakespeare and cricket. He also nurtured her lifelong passion for the neighbourhood soccer team, Manchester City. She can still recite most of its 1933-34 lineup. “Swift, Dale, Barkas,” she says, with mounting glee. “Busby, Cowan, Bray!”

After taking a degree in psychology from Cambridge University, she was ushered into wartime research. The Battle of Britain was on, and her psychological tests helped determine which pilots would become bombers or fighters.

A clever electrical engineer named Peter Milner was on her research team. Soon after getting married they moved to Canada, where he had been recruited to work on the Chalk River nuclear program. (He later became a distinguished psychologist at McGill himself.)

Since her mother had taught her French, Dr. Milner got a job teaching at the francophone, Catholic University of Montreal. She remembers the long white robes of Father Noël Mailloux, the Dominican priest who hired her. “He taught Freud during the day and he taught St. Thomas Aquinas in the evening.”

She didn’t have much time for either: her interest lay in the brain. For her PhD thesis, Dr. Milner began studying the patients of Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute. An experimental surgeon seeking a cure for epilepsy, Dr. Penfield had been cutting out increasingly mysterious parts of the brain, leaving at least two people severely amnesiac. One of them exclaimed, horrified, “What have you people done to my memory?” Dr. Milner found out.

She continued mapping the brain after the breakthrough of H.M. – whose operation was performed by a different surgeon, William Beecher Scoville – showing how particular behaviours are linked to the three-pound organ in our skulls.

Using something called the Wada test, which put half of a patient’s brain to sleep with a drug injection, she showed that the left hemisphere is dominant for language in the vast majority of people, regardless of handedness.

Working with patients whose bundles of nerve fibres connecting the cerebral hemispheres had been severed – another treatment for epilepsy – she started to illuminate what the right brain did. Once seen as a “spare tire,” it turned out to be crucial for spatial and perceptual skills.

Active in research until the age of 99, she still maps her own brain in retirement. With her love and mastery of language – daily crosswords past 100; an obsession with the correct use of semicolons – she is a left hemisphere person.

“Very definitely. No question. The less asked about my right hemisphere the better,” she laughs. Decades ago, a terrified driving instructor approved her licence on the condition that she never use it.

She is good with numbers as well as words. When a friend estimated her haul of honorary doctorates at 26, Dr. Milner figured with a smile that there was no reason to stop adding to the tally.

“I haven’t finished,” she said.