Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield was one of Canada's foremost neurosurgeons. Two deep passions marked his life. The first was a desire to understand the cause of brain illnesses, and the other was a devotion to family; both his immediate family, and members of his extended professional family from around the world, including his colleagues from the Montreal Neurological Institute.
Wilder Penfield was born in 1891 in Spokane, Washington, where he lived until the age of eight. In 1899, he and his mother, sister and older brother moved back to Hudson, Wisconsin. They left his father in Spokane to try to re-establish his medical practice. In 1905, his mother opened a private school in Hudson that not only became Penfield’s school but the family home as well.
When Penfield was 13, his mother learned of the newly established Rhodes Scholarship and Penfield spent the next several years preparing to become one of its recipients. He attended Princeton University, largely due to the fact that it is in the small state of New Jersey, and at the time, Rhodes Scholarships were awarded on a state-by-state basis. Besides being a good student at university, he excelled in sports and was named class president and voted "best all-round man" by his classmates. His mother attended his graduation in 1913, and they traveled up the Hudson River, across Lake George and Lake Champlain to Montreal-the first time Penfield would visit the city that would become so important in his life. While at Princeton, Penfield decided to pursue medicine like his grandfather and estranged father before him. He received a Rhodes Scholarship in 1914, and started his Oxford studies at Merton College the following year.
University and Medical Training
At Oxford, Penfield met two great medical teachers who would become major influences in his life: renowned British neurophysiologist, Sir Charles Sherrington, who first introduced him to the study of the brain, and Sir William Osler, an eminent Canadian professor who was serving as the Regius Professor of Medicine. Penfield sent William Osler a letter of introduction, and Lady Osler invited him to tea. It would be the first of many meetings, and the beginnings of a blossoming friendship. With so many men away at war, Oxford had few medical students. As a result, Penfield had the opportunity to befriend Charles Sherrington, who was knighted in 1922 and received a Nobel Prize in 1932. Penfield wrote about Sherrington, “…he described to us the unsolved mysteries of neurology that were beckoning to him…”
Penfield was injured, but was rescued. He recuperated at the Osler home. Following the incident, there were premature reports to the press of his death, and one newspaper erroneously printed his obituary! Penfield was later compensated by the German government and used the money to buy a farm on Lake Memphremagog in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, which became his family’s escape from the city.
After Oxford, Penfield completed his MD at Johns Hopkins University. He interned under Harvey Cushing in Boston at Peter Brent Brigham Hospital. After his internship, he continued practicing surgery for seven years at the New York Presbyterian Hospital. His time at the hospital was challenging, as he was faced with the limitations of available surgical procedures and discouraged by the death of several of his patients. His first surgical patient was a boy with a brain tumour – a tumour that was too deep to risk removal by surgery. Penfield was forced to tell the boy’s parents that he could not be saved. He added, however, “I may be wrong. Doctor’s are wrong sometimes, you know?” He had resolved then to never remove all hope.
The disillusionment he faced in his work as a surgeon led Penfield to return to research. He traveled to Spain to learn nerve cell staining techniques, and to Germany to learn surgical techniques that he would use later to treat his own patients. For two years, he studied the causes of epilepsy as well as contemporary surgical methods – lessons that would soon form the foundation of his groundbreaking work at the soon-to-be Montreal Neurological Institute.
The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital
Penfield's driving mission was to establish a neurological institute, where surgeons, laboratory researchers, physiologists and all scientists in the field of neurology could work together and share their knowledge. After a decade of fundraising and grant writing, he established the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) in 1934, thanks to a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and financial support from the government of Quebec, the city of Montréal, and private philanthropists. The MNI soon established itself as the centre for training, research, and treatment of nervous system and brain disorders. He was the MNI's first director, and he remained director until 1960.
Penfield and his colleagues invented a revolutionary method of surgery that would become known as "the Montreal procedure" in the 1930s. The procedure enabled surgeons to operate on the brains of epileptic patients and destroy the cells where seizures originated. The doctors used local anesthetics so they could stimulate parts of the brain using electricity, and the patients could describe the sensations that were triggered by that stimulation. This helped doctors to identify and eliminate areas of the brain that produced seizures. Thanks to the success of the Montreal procedure, Penfield and his colleagues discovered a lot about the human brain, including which areas produced certain thoughts, and how memories were stored. For example, one woman, who suffered from epileptic seizures, reported smelling burnt toast before having a seizure. As demonstrated in the video below, Penfield attempted to find this area of the brain by asking the woman when she could smell burnt toast while stimulating parts of the brain.
Over the next several years, Penfield and his colleagues also developed sophisticated behavioral tests for pre- and post-surgical evaluation and made several other important advances. Penfield retired as Director of the MNI in 1960.
Penfield spent his later years writing novels, medical biographies, and articles, travelling the world, lecturing, and participating in MNI activities. Before his death in Montreal in1976, Penfield's writing probed speculatively about the nature of human consciousness and the soul.
As a pioneering clinician and researcher, Penfield was celebrated nationally and internationally for what the Globe and Mail called his "almost miraculous" achievements, but to his patients and fellow health professionals, he was also known for his deep integrity and humanity.
Penfield was designated in 1988 as a National Historic Person. In 1994, he was among the inaugural members of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Penfield's autobiography, No Man Alone, was published following his death.