“Life is long… don’t be afraid of change,” Milner tells new grads

Posted on Thursday, November 12, 2015
Brenda Milner accepts her Honorary Degree, Doctor of Laws, from Robert Thirsk, Chancellor of the University of Calgary. Michael A. Meighen, McGill's Chancellor  looks on. / Photo: Alison Slattery Photography.

Brenda Milner accepts her Honorary Degree, Doctor of Laws, from Robert Thirsk, Chancellor of the University of Calgary. Michael A. Meighen, McGill’s Chancellor looks on. / Photo: Alison Slattery Photography.

As part of Tuesday morning’s Convocation ceremony, the University of Calgary awarded an honorary degree to Brenda Milner. The trail-blazing neuroscientist was presented with an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Laws by University of Calgary Chancellor, Robert Thirsk (MD’82).

In her address to the Class of 2015, the 97-year-old Milner advised grads to follow their passions. “Occasionally one finds that one has made the wrong choice. I did in my career. I started in mathematics and I changed to neuropsychology and neuroscience. If you find real temptation, real excitement somewhere else, don’t be afraid to change,” said the 97-year-old icon to cheers from the audience. “La vie est longue.”

In presenting Milner with the degree, Thirsk, began on a personal note. “I’m a member of the McGill University medical school Class of 1982,” said the former astronaut. “Dr. Milner stood out as one of my many great professors at McGill. Her lectures on neuropathology were fascinating to young medical students. She seemed so down to earth and so approachable and yet so inspiring. My classmates and I were privileged to be in the presence of an international acclaimed researcher.”

A pioneer in the field of cognitive neuroscience, Milner is widely known for her work with amnesia patient H. M. Born in Manchester, England. She founded the Cognitive Neuroscience Unit of the Montreal Neurological Institute for the exploration of the anatomical basis of cognition and went on to publish landmark papers on memory with William Scoville and Wilder Penfield. She is credited with introducing the concept of multiple memory systems in the brain and her observations have stimulated an enormous body of research.

Thirsk then read the citation. “Great leadership, when combined with longevity serves humanity like no other attribute,” said Thirsk. “The greatness of a leader’s gift in combination with its long duration elevates the human condition beyond measure. No greater leadership is imaginable than that which illuminates the arduous pathways toward the undiscovered frontiers of new knowledge.

“This is the example offered by the life and career of Dr. Brenda Milner. Her pioneering work on memory, and specifically her identification of different memory systems as well as the role of the hippocampus in the formation of memory, have earned her a reputation as one of the founders of modern neuroscience.”

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