Wilder Penfield Archive (P142)

Wilder Penfield in 1963, sketching a cross section of the human brain (photo by Charles Hodge). Osler Library (Photography Collection).
Wilder Penfield in 1963, sketching a cross section of the human brain (photo by Charles Hodge). Osler Library (Photography Collection).

Born in Spokane, Washington, Wilder Penfield (1891–1976) became one of Canada’s most famous scientists and doctors of the mid-twentieth century, as well as one of the world’s most significant neurologists and neurosurgeons.  Educated at Princeton, Oxford, and  Johns  Hopkins Medical School, Penfield’s work at McGill and the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) was central to improvements in neurological medical care in Montreal. He contributed to major advances in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of epilepsy, as well as insights into cerebral circulation, consciousness, and the location and mechanisms of various brain functions including sensation, memory, and language.

Containing some sixty meters of correspondence, photographs, illustrations, diaries, manuscripts, and other artifacts, the Wilder Penfield Archive documents almost every aspect of Dr. Penfield’s personal life and professional career. The earliest materials include correspondence, diaries, and memorabilia from his youth, his undergraduate training at Princeton, and his experiences at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. At Oxford Penfield became a friend and pupil of neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate Charles Sherrington, as well as the then Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, Sir William Osler. Documenting the beginning of his medical career, the collection shows how Dr. Penfield developed a neurosurgical service at Columbia University’s Presbyterian Hospital in the 1920s.

Materials from the Montreal period, beginning in 1928, make up the bulk of the collection. They record how Penfield and his medical partner from New York, William Cone, joined with neurologist Colin Russel to establish a combined department of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital. Through this joint department, and later the establishment of the MNI, which he headed from its beginnings in 1934 until 1960, Penfield was able to combine a facility for the care of patients with neurologic disorders, a research centre for the scientific study of the nervous system, and a teaching department of neurology and neurosurgery. Correspondence, administrative materials, manuscripts, and research records from this period also document how Penfield, McGill, and the MNI attracted the research and skills of other innovative neurologists and neurosurgeons to the MNI. Several of these specialists collaborated with Dr. Penfield on research projects or publications.

McGill holds complementary material in the archives of the Montreal Neurological  Institute, as  well  as  in  several  individual  fonds  of  Dr. Penfield’s colleagues, including William Cone, Colin Russel, Francis Lothian McNaughton, Joseph Stratford, Herbert Jasper, Donald Hebb, Theodore Rasmussen, and William Feindel.

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