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A scientific pioneer and a reluctant role model

At 94, Dr. Brenda Milner continues to work full-time.

Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

In the early 1950s, Wilder Penfield, one of the world's leading neurosurgeons at the time, performed what should have been a straightforward elective surgery. The patient, an engineer who headed his department, had come to the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, affiliated with McGill University, with epileptic seizures. The results of the surgery were catastrophic. "He couldn't remember anything that happened. He couldn't go out for dinner and follow a conversation," recalls the neuropsychologist Brenda Milner. "He had to be demoted to draftsman. But there was no loss of intelligence, no loss in reasoning."

Dr. Milner was then a 30-something PhD candidate, one of the few women employed by The Neuro (as those who work there call it). "Dr. Penfield was shocked. He didn't know what happened." She and the master surgeon wrote up the case, not knowing what would come of it. Soon after, she received an invitation from a neurosurgeon at Harvard. He had a similar case he hadn't thought significant; did she have any interest?

"I couldn't imagine why he would invite a young woman to study this case," remembers Dr. Milner, who at 94 continues her research full-time. The patient, identified for decades only as H.M., became the most important case study in the history of neuroscience, leading to many discoveries about how the brain creates memories. Although doctors had assumed H.M. was unable to form any new memories, Dr. Milner's groundbreaking research showed that he could develop new motor skills and spatial memories, proving for the first time that there are different types of memory. The Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel credited Dr. Milner with creating a whole new field called cognitive neuroscience.

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On November 21, Dr. Milner became the ninth woman to be named to the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, joining 53 other history-making researchers such as Alexander Graham Bell and J. Armand Bombardier. But she doesn't like to to be recognized as being one of the few women who have reached the highest ranks of science in Canada.

After her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, a group of young female scientists swarmed her eagerly to snap photos with her, showing how Dr. Milner, albeit somewhat unwillingly, has become an icon of what female scientists can accomplish in a male-dominated field.

"I have not set myself up to be a role model for women, but it does seem to be more of an issue than it used to be," Dr. Milner explains, recalling how she increasingly gets mobbed by women after public lectures in the past five years. "There is rarely a man in the group."

Although the landscape, particularly at medical schools, has changed significantly since Dr. Milner began her career, women continue to be underrepresented in many scientific fields. They make up only 39 per cent of students in physical sciences and 17 per cent in engineering and computer science.  According to a recent study from the Council of Canadian Academies, only a third of faculty members in Canada are women, and that number shrinks to 15 per cent in the physical sciences, engineering and computer science.

Yet the toughest competition that Dr. Milner says she ever faced was against other women. When she was in high school she announced her intention to pursue mathematics against her headmistress's wishes she go into languages. The best science students in her native Britain went to Cambridge, yet the school's rigid college system only allowed for 400 female students to enroll. "It was tremendously difficult to get in," she says. "My competition was all women." Her all-girls school didn't have the calibre of teacher in math and physics to get her up to a competitive level, so they sent her elsewhere to a male lecturer.

For the rest of her career, however, Dr. Milner was determined to compete with the best scientists, male or female. "She never wanted to win prizes that were only for women, she wanted to win prizes open to both genders so she could beat the men," says Denise Klein, who has worked at The Neuro since starting a post-doc with Dr. Milner in 1992.

Early in her studies at Cambridge, Dr. Milner realized she would never be a great mathematician and switched to psychology, earning her degree in 1939. She met her husband Peter Milner while working for the military during the Second World War. They hastily married when he was asked to launch Canada's atomic energy program, and moved to Montreal.

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After a teaching stint at the Université de Montréal, she realized that "in North America you were nobody if you didn't have a PhD." Dr. Milner wanted more than a teaching career. "I knew I had it in me to do something big," she says.

When she arrived at The Neuro in June, 1950, to begin her PhD, she was one of few women. "The institute was authoritarian," Dr. Milner recalls. "People who were junior would not speak out of turn. But it was not sexist." Dr. Klein goes a step further in describing it as a "chauvinistic environment."

Dr. Milner's response to the male-dominated atmosphere was to challenge stereotypes about psychology being a less rigorous approach to brain science than the work of the primarily male neurosurgeons. "She took what she did seriously enough that other people took her seriously and did not dismiss her work as soft science," says Dr. Klein. "She showed people that her field could be as scientific, as useful and as data-driven as other fields that are taken more seriously." During this period before brain imaging, when surgery was required to see what was happening in the brain, Dr. Milner's behaviour-based diagnostic work was eventually seen as crucial.

Dr. Milner insists she never encountered any barriers because of her gender. Her resistance to being recognized as an outstanding woman seems to stem from her desire to be a great scientist in general. "Brenda was good at showing people she was necessary," says Dr. Klein. "She showed people that the pieces of information she was providing from thinking about the brain and behaviour were important. She told me to make myself useful and I would have a job."

Far from being dismissed as a woman, Dr. Milner intimidated people. "Remember that she was a very strong woman," explains Gabriel Leonard, a clinical scientist at The Neuro. "There were very few people that had the courage and the necessary tenacity to fight her. She was a formidable person to debate, with a large vocabulary and a great knowledge of literature."

Three years ago, Dr. Milner received the prestigious international Balzan Prize, netting $1-million for her research. Now, she is in the midst of launching into a new research area looking at how the hemispheres of the brain interact. This year she is taking on two new post-docs and her colleagues reckon that she may be the oldest scientist in the world to do so.

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Special to The Globe and Mail

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Eric Kandel as the "late Nobel Laureate." He is still alive. This online verison has been corrected.

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