Doreen Kimura

April 2022

Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship

President, 1992-1993 and 1998-2000

In several of her addresses and publications, Doreen Kimura announced proudly her hope that she had offended many students. What she meant of course was that she had suggested ideas to students that they had not thought of before and found disturbing, perhaps because they challenged their beliefs about the world. In this one expression, Doreen’s philosophy as a professor, teacher, and university citizen was succinctly explained: seek the truth wherever it takes you, without regard to dogma, politics, or the possibility that people’s feelings will be hurt. Her views on academic freedom, open debate of the issues, abhorrence of censorship, intellectual diversity and meritocracy, and fearlessness all follow naturally from the scholar’s job to seek the truth.

Born in Winnipeg and raised in Neudorf, Saskatchewan, Doreen began her teaching career early at age 17, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Saskatchewan, and again at age 19 in northern Manitoba, all the while completing her high school education through a Saskatchewan government correspondence school. One of the stories she told was about being assured by a visiting regional supervisor that it was alright to discipline students with the rod, something he had noticed from her record that she hadn’t done. And she never did. While in Manitoba, she applied for and won an entrance scholarship to McGill, which she described as the most exciting event of her life up to that point.

In her first year at McGill, in 1953, she took the introductory psychology course from Donald Hebb, one of the leading psychologists of his time, and found his lectures on how the brain might mediate behavior so fascinating that she said it influenced all her subsequent work. Hebb was also a role model and a person whose opinion she greatly valued. When she decided she wanted to go to graduate school in psychology, she went to speak to Hebb and got a strange reaction from him. He asked, “Why would a nice girl like you want to go into graduate school?” Doreen understood the discouraging connotations of the question, but chose to focus on the more pertinent aspect, the fact that Hebb was trying to determine how serious she was. She persisted, and he was instrumental in getting her accepted to Berkeley. However, the offer from Berkeley involved her being a research assistant doing research for another professor for two years. Doreen was too independent to find that situation appealing, even though the Berkeley professor was eminent, and went to Hebb with the letter. Hebb always believed that graduate students should get started on their own research as early as possible and agreed with Doreen that the offer from Berkeley had serious drawbacks. As Doreen explained, she was “then and there admitted to graduate studies at McGill.”

At McGill, she completed her 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, one Canada’s most distinguished behavioral scientists, as well as being co-supervised by Donald Hebb. 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 subsequently was 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, in Burnaby, British Columbia.

As Elizabeth Hampson and I described in our obituary in 2013, Doreen Kimura had an exemplary research career. She was internationally known for her research on 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 that 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 the idea that there might be such 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 (Ontario) 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. Several of her former graduate students went on to serve as the directors or co-directors of the clinical neuropsychology training programs at other universities, programs which represent 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 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; the award for Distinguished Contributions to Canadian Psychology as a Science from the Canadian Psychological Association; the John Dewan Award from 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; the Furedy Academic Freedom Award from SAFS; and honorary degrees from Queen’s and Simon Fraser universities.

Doreen was the right person to be the first president of SAFS. She was a brilliant woman, with an impeccable academic reputation, who felt strongly about academic freedom and the merit principle and was an articulate and fearless advocate for these principles. She was also the perfect rebuttal to the charge that women couldn’t succeed in academia because either they weren’t good enough or were persistently discriminated against.

For someone who went to university in the 1950s, a period when sex role stereotypes were common, Doreen seems to have been unaffected by them in her own personal life. She said in her convocation address at Simon Fraser University in 1993, speaking about her undergraduate years at McGill University:

“I don’t recall anything sexist about that era, there was no demeaning concern about a ‘woman-friendly’ atmosphere, no one patronized me or other women in my classes, or made any special concessions to us as women. I was never insulted by an avoidance of topics, which nowadays might be considered sensitive. There was no Women’s Studies Program, and no perceived need for any, since it was assumed that women, like men, had an interest in studying human beings of both sexes. I had the same opportunity and means for gaining respect from colleagues as men had, and nothing less was expected of me. I was, in other words, an equal.”

And she was not alone in believing that women should be treated equally. In 1995, Doreen, along with Ruth Gruhn of University of Alberta, Judy Wubnig of University of Waterloo, and Christine Furedy of York University wrote a brief on behalf of SAFS to the National Science and Technology Review, saying, in part:

“As women in the academic profession ourselves, we feel it may be useful to the Review committee to know that there are many women like us who are offended at the suggestion that women be treated specially. We suggest instead that, beyond recognizing their irreplaceable role in childbearing and childbirth, it is inappropriate to give special treatment to women. We oppose scholarships, fellowships or grants directed specifically to women. We therefore applaud the recent decision to do away with NSERC Women’s Faculty Awards in the Sciences. Not only are such special directives unjust, in that equally or more meritorious men are not eligible, but they also ultimately demean and debase the status of women in these areas. Moreover, they do nothing to ensure the future quality of scientific research in Canada. Only rewards for excellence, regardless of sex or any other group membership, will achieve that.”

Sadly, the awards available to women only were reinstated in 1998 and are now called University Faculty Awards.

In an article in the London Free Press in 1993, Doreen outlined some of the reasons for the formation of SAFS. She first noted that professional and scholarly associations were eroding the principle of merit. For examples, she noted that CAUT favored the position that faculty hiring should be “population-based that is 50-50 …based on sex, and within each sex, a proportional or equal representation of the other designated groups.” A second example was that a report from the Canadian Philosophical Association that “a male candidate be clearly and unequivocally superior to all female candidates to be hired.” In addition, Doreen raised the concern that academic freedom was under attack. She provided some examples: the University of Toronto professor who was forced to go on leave after an exhibit she curated at the ROM on colonial Africa led to her being harassed and accused of being racist; and “a professor at York had his class being invaded by members of the sexual harassment committee on a day on which he was discussing biological differences between men and women.”

She concluded by stating that freedom of speech in a university is not merely a right but a duty, and that the university is the one place in society “in which any idea can be discussed in an intelligent and rational manner, without fear of intimidation or reprisal.”

By the time SAFS incorporated in early 1992, the Federal Employment Equity Act and the Federal Contractors Program had existed for several years and three professional associations, the Canadian Association for University Teachers (CAUT), the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), and the Canadian Philosophical Association, had engaged in lobbying efforts or written reports that in SAFS eyes had attacked the very foundations of the university. Essentially, these organizations had argued that treating each person according to his or her own abilities was to be pushed to the side to appoint faculty according to sex, race, and indigenous status. The entire first issue of the SAFS Newsletter (May 1992) was devoted to a critique of these reports and the danger they represented to the Academy, including a letter Doreen wrote to the chair of the parliamentary Employment Equity Act Review Committee objecting to employment equity. Doreen’s writings and addresses over the years continued to elaborate on her belief in the SAFS principles of academic freedom and merit.

Doreen didn’t just write against preferential hiring based on sex (or race, etc.), including articles with deliciously honest titles such as, “Affirmative Action Policies are Demeaning to Women in Academia” (Canadian Psychology, 1997, 38, 236-243) and “Affirmative Action is Junk Science” (National Post, July 26, 1999). She also did original empirical research challenging the basis for affirmative action, namely the claim that women are discriminated against in hiring for faculty positions.

Her research on hiring patterns in academia included a study Doreen conducted while at Simon Fraser (UBC Reports, January 10, 2002). She contacted chairs of all the departments at SFU and University of British Columbia to survey the hiring rates of men and women who applied to the last three positions filled. More than half of the departments at both institutions replied, representing all the disciplines recognized by Statistics Canada. Of the 4525 applicants for faculty positions, 71.1% were male and 29.8% were female. Of the 105 individuals from the survey who were hired, 41% were women, while 59% were male. The results of this study were consistent with other studies and showed once again that there is no evidence that women are being discriminated in faculty hiring. Indeed, they were hired in proportions greater than their representation in the applicant pool.

The first major initiative SAFS launched was the University in Jeopardy Conference in March 1993. Doreen had negotiated with the Fraser Institute to help support the cost of the conference. This was a full day conference, very well attended, whose talks and panel discussions were summarized extensively by Judy Wubnig in SAFS Newsletter issue 3 (April,1993).

In her introductory remarks to open the conference, Doreen affirmed that almost all universities had policies in place based on CAUT principles concerning academic freedom and non-discrimination in appointments, promotion, and tenure by reason of “race, creed, colour, ancestry…sex.” Yet, Doreen explained that the threat of stopping grants to universities that failed to live up to the employment equity guidelines to increase participation of underrepresented group members led to the beginning of the slide in abandoning the original CAUT principles of merit and non-discrimination. In fact, Doreen called the Ontario government version of employment equity “nothing less than a quota system.” Sadly, university administrators put up at best a feeble fight to preserve standards and at worst engaged in a complete capitulation. Obviously, the hope of the conference was that by alerting the public and academics to the problems the university faced would lead to resistance against these types of social engineering solutions and the finding of alternative strategies for achieving equality of opportunity.

Despite some setbacks in the battle against the forces of political correctness, there were victories. When a Women’s Studies Program was first established at Western, relevant departments were asked to join and support it. The psychology department was one of the ones asked for support and we agreed, until we learned that one course we suggested be part of the curriculum was refused. That course was Doreen’s, called the Biological Basis of Sex Differences, which had been taught for several years. Despite good faith negotiations, the Women Studies Program would not accept listing this course. The psychology department then refused to participate. Further, after several years the other side relented and students in the program can now learn about the biological basis of sex differences.

Doreen not only taught about sex differences but as mentioned earlier she was also a leading researcher in the field. She believed that some sex differences in intellectual or cognitive pattern are created early in life because of hormonal differences before or shortly after birth. For example, men perform better on spatial-solving tasks, such as mental rotation and paper folding; women, however, match identical forms more quickly than men and recall lists of words or a meaningful paragraph better than men. While men do better on math reasoning tests, women do better on straightforward calculation. These and other differences seem to have effects on disciplinary choices men and women make in university. For example, even among math talented young men and women, more men choose engineering and physical sciences than do women. Interestingly, the ratio of men to women among the math talented has become smaller over time. And women do not avoid the sciences and there are steadily increasing numbers of women in physiology, neurosciences, and medicine.

It is not hard to understand that finding sex differences in abilities did not make Doreen popular among certain groups of people. Even though Doreen went to great lengths to emphasize the differences she found were average differences, meaning that that there was considerable overlap in the distribution between the sexes, and that women did better than men on some tasks, the sheer fact of differences made her a target. One such adversary was a Toronto publication called THIS Magazine, an alternative magazine that covers the art scene.

Doreen agreed to talk to the magazine about SAFS, its history and principles. Unfortunately, the authors of the article had an agenda to smear SAFS. They repeatedly insinuated that SAFS’s opposition to employment equity was at heart racist, that prominent SAFS members were racist and sexist, and had ties to racist groups. All this of course was asserted without evidence and was not true. The authors even included in the published article an extremely unflattering photograph of Doreen suggesting an evil aura. Additionally, they distorted some research of Doreen’s to suggest she concluded that only women’s cognitive abilities were controlled by hormonal fluctuations, that is, omitting that Doreen also showed that hormonal fluctuations affect men’s cognitive performance. Doreen responded effectively to these unfair accusations in the SAFS Newsletter (1995, issue 11). Several other SAFS members also criticized the THIS article as unfair and biased in the same Newsletter issue.

A forceful and colorful personality with strongly held opinions, Doreen was a formidable proponent of her causes, known affectionately even by friends as “The Dragon Lady.” She was also a gracious host, who liked to party and dance.

Doreen’s many achievements were even 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.

Doreen Kimura was one of 18 academics interviewed for a book entitled, Great Canadian Scientists (Shell, B., 1997). Each scientist was asked to describe themselves in a few words. Doreen answered: independent, non-conformist, self-assured. She listed her favorite music as Blue Rodeo “Outskirts,” R & B, and the Rolling Stones.

Doreen should have the final say: “Don’t take too seriously the advice of people who supposedly know better than you do. As long as you are finding out things we didn’t know before, you are doing something right.” And, “You just have to go ahead and find things out for yourself. This is the mark of a good scientist.”