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Brenda Milner


Training Location(s):

PhD, McGill University, (1952)

BA, Cambridge University, (1939)

MA, Cambridge University, (1949)

Primary Affiliation(s):

McGill University

Montreal Neurological Institute

Media Links:

Canadian Science and Technology Museum Hall of Fame Profile


Great Canadian Psychology Website Profile


The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Profile




Career Focus: Cognitive neuroscience; neuropsychology of memory; frontal lobe function.


Born in Manchester, England in July 1918, Brenda Milner (née Langford) is widely credited with pioneering the field of cognitive neuroscience and has been called one of the world’s foremost authorities on memory. For over 60 years she has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the inner workings of the brain, and though well into her nineties she continues to teach and conduct research at the Montreal Neurological Institute. 


Her early years in England were filled with music and the classics: her father, a music critic and piano teacher, took her education into his own hands, homeschooling her in the arts, mathematics and German. By the age of 6 she was already fluent in German.  However, when she was just 8 years old, her father died of tuberculosis and she was subsequently enrolled in the Withington Girls’ School in Manchester. It was there that she truly discovered her love of mathematics, eventually earning a scholarship to Cambridge in that field. Despite her fondness for math, she realized shortly after arriving at Cambridge that she was never going to be a great mathematician and decided instead to pursue psychology. In 1939 she graduated from Cambridge University with her B.A. in experimental psychology. In several interviews from recent years, Dr. Milner has recalled that her decision to study science rather than the arts centered around her conviction that you could always pursue literature and languages on your own, but once you gave up science, it would be gone for good. She also frequently cites her boundless curiosity as her driving force as a scientist.


After she graduated with her B.A., she was offered a scholarship to stay on at Cambridge and continue her psychology studies there, but once World War II began Milner and her colleagues were redirected into research for the war effort, first for the Air Force and later in a radar research establishment.  It was there that she met her future husband, Peter Milner, an electrical engineer.  The couple was married in 1944 just before they left England for Canada where Peter was to assist in establishing Canadian atomic-energy research in Montreal.  Brenda soon found work teaching in the psychology department at the University of Montreal.  However, she quickly ascertained that in order to succeed in academia in North America, one needed a PhD. She convinced the esteemed Dr. Donald Hebb at McGill University to accept her as his doctoral student, which he did in 1950. 


While Milner was working on her PhD, Hebb secured a research position for her with Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) studying epileptic patients. Then in 1952 she received her PhD for the investigation of the intellectual effects of temporal lobe damage in humans and secured a tenured position at McGill University. However, in a courageous and career changing move, Milner decided to continue her work with Penfield at the MNI, despite Hebb’s warning that a psychologist would not last long in a neurological institute.  It was through this work at the MNI that she gained recognition and was consequently asked by William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon in Hartford, Connecticut, to come to Hartford and work with a patient known only as H.M. 


H.M. was a young man who had suffered from very severe epileptic seizures from about the age of 10. He was desperate to find relief and after consulting with Dr. Scoville, he agreed to undergo an experimental surgery in which his medial temporal lobes on both sides of his brain were removed. In terms of his epilepsy, this operation greatly reduced his seizures, but he was left with anterograde amnesia, the inability to commit new events to long-term memory.  Brenda Milner began working with H.M., conducting a series of experiments designed to assess his memory and learning abilities. What she observed over time led to a groundbreaking discovery: she found that H.M. improved steadily on the tests from one day to the next, despite the fact that he had no recollection of having ever done them before. Essentially, he was effectively learning new skills, even though he had no memory of having done so. The results of this research were published in 1957 (Scoville and Milner, 1957). This 1957 article has became one of the most cited publications in the history of neuroscience. The realization that the brain was not governed by a solitary memory system was monumental and changed the direction of memory research from that moment on. 


More than 50 years after her landmark finding, Milner continues to blaze trails in neuroscience, contributing significantly to research on memory, language processing and how the hemispheres of the brain interact. She has over 20 honorary degrees and many distinguished awards including (to name just a few) the International Balzan Prize, the Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award, and the Gairdner Award. She is a fellow of the Royal Society (London) and the Royal Society of Canada, and on November 21, 2012, Brenda Milner became the nineth woman to be inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. Brenda Milner is an inspiration as a pioneer and scientist, but also as a woman whose curiosity, persistence, and determination have changed how we understand ourselves and our world. 


by Carol Summers (2013)

To cite this article, see Credits


Selected Works:
By Brenda Milner

Milner, B. (1995). Aspects of human frontal lobe function. In H.H. Jasper, S. Riggio, P.S. Goldman-Rakic (Eds.), Advances in neurology, Vol. 66, (pp. 67-84). New York: Raven Press.


Milner, B., Corkin, S., & Teuber, H. L. (1968). Further analysis of the hippocampal amnesic syndrome: 14-year follow-up study of H. M. Neuropsychologia, 6(3), 215-234.


Milner, B., Squire, L. R., Kandel, E. R., Gentile, B. F., & Miller, B. O. (2009). Cognitive neuroscience and the study of memory (1998). Foundations of psychological thought: A psychological history (pp. 492-511). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.    


Penfield, W., & Milner, B. (1958). Memory deficit produced by bilateral lesions in the hippocampal zone. A.M.A. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 79, 475-497.


Scoville, W. B., & Milner, B. (1957). Loss of recent memory after bilateral hippocampal lesions. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 20, 11-21.

About Brenda Milner

Gul, P., Korosteliov, A., Caplan, L., Ball, L. C., Bazar, J. L., Rodkey, E. N., Sheese, K., Young, J., & Rutherford, A. (2013). Reconstructing the experiences of first generation women in Canadian psychology. Canadian Psychology 54(2), 94-104.


McDevitt, N. (2007, December 6). Brenda Milner: Making a little noise when she walks. McGill Reporter, 40(8).


Millar, E. (2012 December 17). A scientific pioneer and a reluctant role model. The Globe and Mail, A15. 


Milner, B. (1998). Brenda Milner. In L. R. Squire (Ed.), The history of neuroscience in autobiography: Volume 2 (pp. 276-305). San Diego: Academic Press.


Mook, D.  (2004).  Classic Experiments in Psychology (Chapter 31: Brenda Milner and the Case of H.M., pp. 187-192).  Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.


Wilson, S. J., & Engel, J. (2010). Diverse perspectives on developments in epilepsy surgery. Seizure: European Journal of Epilepsy, 19, 659-668.


Xia, C. (2006, July). Understanding the human brain: A lifetime of dedicated pursuit. Interview with Dr. Brenda Milner. McGill Journal of Medicine, 9(2), 165-172.