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Wilder Penfield

  Wilder Graves Penfield, OM, CC, CMG, MD, FRS (January 25/26, 1891 – April 5, 1976) was an American-born Canadian neurosurgeon.


Early life

He was born in Spokane, Washington, and studied at Princeton University before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied neuropathology under Sir Charles Scott Sherrington. He obtained his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. He spent several years training at Oxford, where he met William Osler. He also studied in Spain, Germany, and New York.

Neural stimulation

Penfield was a groundbreaking researcher and highly original surgeon. With his colleague, Herbert Jasper, he invented the Montreal procedure, in which he treated patients with severe epilepsy by destroying nerve cells in the brain where the seizures originated. Before operating, he stimulated the brain with electrical probes while the patients were conscious on the operating table (under only local anesthesia), and observed their responses. In this way he could more accurately target the areas of the brain responsible, reducing the side-effects of the surgery.

This technique also allowed him to create maps of the sensory and motor cortices of the brain (see cortical homunculus) showing their connections to the various limbs and organs of the body. These maps are still used today, practically unaltered. Along with Herbert Jasper, he published this work in 1951 (2nd ed., 1954) as the landmark Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain. This work contributed a great deal to understanding the lateralization of brain function.

Penfield reported that stimulation of the temporal lobes could lead to vivid recall of memories. This created the common misconception that the brain continuously "records" experiences in perfect detail, although these memories are not available to conscious recall. In reality, however, the reported episodes of recall occurred in less than five percent of his patients, and these results have not been replicated by modern surgeons.[1] His development of the neurosurgical technique that produced the less injurious meningo-cerebral scar became widely accepted in the field of neurosurgery, where the "Penfield dissector" is still in daily use.

Later life

During his life he was called "the greatest living Canadian." He devoted much thinking to the functionings of the mind, and continued until his death to contemplate whether there was any scientific basis for the existence of the human soul.

After taking surgical apprenticeship under Harvey Cushing, he obtained a position at the Neurological Institute of New York, where he carried out his first solo operations against epilepsy. While in New York, he met David Rockefeller, who desired to endow an institute where Penfield could study the surgical treatment of epilepsy. However, academic politics among the New York neurologists prevented the establishment of this institute in New York; subsequently, Penfield moved to Montreal in 1928. There, Penfield taught at McGill University and the Royal Victoria hospital, becoming the city's first neurosurgeon.

In 1934 he founded and became the first Director of McGill University's world-famous Montreal Neurological Institute and the associated Montreal Neurological Hospital, which was established with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. He retired in 1960 and turned his attention to writing, producing a novel as well as his autobiography, No Man Alone. In 1967 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1994 he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Much of his archival material is housed at the Osler Library of McGill University.

In his later years, Penfield was especially dedicated service in the public interest, particularly in support of university education. With his friends Governor-General Georges Vanier and Mrs. Pauline Vanier, née Archer, he co-founded the Vanier Institute of the Family, which Penfield helped found "to promote and guide education in the home -- man's first classroom." He was also an early proponent of bilingualism from childhood onward.

Avenue Docteur-Penfield, on the slope of Mount Royal in Montreal, was named in Penfield's honour on October 5, 1978. Part of this avenue borders McGill's campus and actually intersects with Promenade Sir-William-Osler - to the amusement of many medical historians who can say "meet me at Osler and Penfield".

Pop culture references

In science fiction author Philip K. Dick's masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, characters use a household device called a Penfield Mood Organ to dial up emotions on demand.

Author J.G. Ballard's novel Super-Cannes has a main character who is a manipulative psychiatrist named Wilder Penrose.


  1. ^ Jensen, Eric (2005). Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 2nd ed., Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ISBN 1-4166-0030-2. 
  • Famous Canadian Physicians: Dr. Wilder Penfield at Library and Archives Canada

Selected books and publications

  • Epilepsy and Cerebral Localization: A Study of the Mechanism, Treatment and Prevention of Epileptic Seizures. Penfield, W., and Theodore C. Erickson. Charles C Thomas, 1941.
  • Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain. 2nd edition. Jasper, H., and Penfield, W. Little, Brown and Co., 1954. ISBN 0-316-69833-4
  • The Torch. Penfield, W. Little, Brown and Co.; 1960. ISBN 1-299-80119-6. "A story of love, treachery, and the battle for truth in ancient Greece."
  • The Mystery of the Mind : A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain. Penfield, Wilder. Princeton University Press, 1975. ISBN 0-691-02360-3
  • No Man Alone: A Surgeon's Life. Little, Brown and Co., 1977. ISBN 0-316-69839-3. Penfield's autobiography.
  • Something hidden : a biography of Wilder Penfield . Jefferson Lewis, Doubleday and Co., 1981. ISBN 0-385-17696-1.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Wilder_Penfield". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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