Doreen Kimura

Canadian Neuroscientist

Doreen Kimura was an eminent neuroscientist and one of the founders and main pillars of the field of neuropsychology in Canada. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba she grew up in Neudorf, Saskatchewan. At the age of 17 she taught school in a one-room rural schoolhouse near Dubuc Saskatchewan and again at 19 in a one-room school near Cowan, Manitoba.

In 1953 Doreen responded to an ad in the Manitoba Teacher’s magazine and won an entrance scholarship to McGill University, where she completed Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees, obtaining a PhD in physiological psychology in 1961. During her PhD work, Doreen studied neurological patients at the Montreal Neurological Institute under the supervision of Brenda Milner, co-supervised by Donald O. Hebb, two of Canada’s most distinguished behavioral scientists. In the early 1960s, Doreen was a postdoctoral Geigy Fellow at the Neurochirurgische Klinik, Kantonsspital, in Zurich Switzerland, where she set up the Human Brain Function Laboratory, and a postdoctoral researcher in brain and behavior at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

After returning to Canada, Doreen was briefly a research associate at the newly constituted McMaster medical school in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1967 she was offered a professorship at the University of Western Ontario and remained at Western for the next 31 years as a professor in the Department of Psychology and, following its inception in 1991, as a member of Western’s interdisciplinary program in Neuroscience. After retiring from Western in 1998 she held a visiting professorship at Simon Fraser University.

Doreen Kimura had an exemplary research career. She was internationally known for her research into the biological bases of human cognitive abilities such as language, complex motor function, and spatial abilities, as well as how these come to differ across individuals. Her first major discovery, while still at McGill, was the demonstration that a simple auditory technique, dichotic listening, could yield insights into the different specializations of the left and right hemispheres of the human brain. Her report of this finding has been cited nearly 1000 times by other researchers around the world, and helped to open up a new era of research into left-right differences in the brain, which could now be studied non-invasively using the new technique and related techniques that followed.

Doreen was also known, among other things, for her view, still controversial today, that aphasias and apraxias (complex disturbances in speech and learned hand-and-arm movements that are common symptoms in patients with brain damage) may represent an impairment in high-level movement programming and not a deficit in the semantic or symbolic aspects of language and gesture. Even more radically, she proposed that the left side of the brain may be specifically adapted for this type of motor control, explaining why the control of speech is typically mediated by the left hemisphere. Her ideas on language and its evolution were outlined in her book, Neuromotor Mechanisms in Human Communication (Oxford Press, 1993).

While studying aphasias she observed there sometimes were differences between men and women in the effects of damage to different parts of the brain. For example, lesions to posterior portions of the left hemisphere are more likely to result in aphasias in men than women. Such observations led Doreen to the view that men’s and women’s brains may be structurally organized somewhat differently, a radical view in the feminist climate of the late twentieth century. In the later years of her career, Doreen was a spokesperson for the view that sex differences might exist, and had a right to be studied by researchers, despite the controversy that surrounds differences between the sexes. Her views on sex differences in brain organization and sex differences more generally were described in her book, Sex and Cognition (MIT Press, 1999).

Doreen’s contributions were not limited to the research domain. She established the Neuropsychology Unit at London’s University Hospital (now London Health Sciences Centre) in 1974, where she personally oversaw the neuropsychological assessment of nearly 3000 patients with brain injuries of various types. This unit was one of the first hospital-based neuropsychology services in Canada. She also had a significant influence in the development of the department of psychology at Western, e.g., establishing the department’s graduate program in neuropsychology. Three of her former graduate students went on to serve as the directors or co-directors of the Clinical Neuropsychology training programs at their universities, which represents nearly half the neuropsychology graduate programs in Canada. Doreen’s contributions to applied training in Canada, both directly and indirectly, were therefore very far-reaching.

Doreen Kimura was a passionate advocate and defender of academic freedom and standards. She was founding president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, an organization that began in 1992 and is still a vibrant defender of academic freedom in Canada.
Doreen was the recipient of many honors and awards including: member of the Royal Society of Canada; the Hebb Award from the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour and Cognitive Science; award for Distinguished Contributions to Canadian Psychology as a Science from the Canadian Psychological Association; the John Dewan Award of the Ontario Mental Health Foundation; the Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy from Simon Fraser University; the Kistler Medal and a $100,000 prize from the Foundation for the Future; and honorary degrees from Queen’s and Simon Fraser universities.

A forceful and colorful personality with strongly held opinions, Doreen Kimura was a formidable proponent of her causes, known affectionately even by friends as “The Dragon Lady”. Doreen’s many achievements were all the more remarkable when one considers she lived with daily chronic pain for several decades, which she bore stoically. Doreen delighted in becoming a grandmother for the first time at age 78 and enjoyed many wonderful hours with Ella that brightened her last year of failing health. She died peacefully on February 27, 2013 at age 80 in Vancouver.
Doreen is survived by her daughter Charlotte Thistle Archer (formerly Vanderwolf), granddaughter Ella Archer, and by her sisters Shelagh Derouin and Amber Harvey. She will be dearly missed by her family and many good friends.