Wilder Penfield (January 26, 1891 – April 5, 1976)

Parts of this series are supported by the British Society of the History of Medicine.

He invented new methods to map the brain. He perfected wake-patient brain surgeries. He began the work that explains hallucinations and brought forward the framework showing how deja vu works. He started the field of neuropsychology.

Yet, if you asked Wilder Penfield what his most memorable moments were, he always responded with “that would have been the time we were torpedoed by the Germans and the time we won the Cup with Princeton.”

There is one overarching theme to most of the trailblazers and heroes of medicine I have been featuring. They often were reluctant physicians, colorful people, and not rarely socially incompatible from acerbic to antisocial.

Wilder Penfield was a reluctant physician, colorful, but none of the social incompatibilities. Contemporaries describe him, like Åke Senning, as genuinely warm and a concerned friend, ready to help and always open for discussion and conversation. He loved children and was a strong advocate of early childhood intervention and bilingualism.

Penfield spent his early academic years studying this and that, but mostly playing American Football and even coaching the team for a while. He received a Rhodes scholarship to Merton at 22, moving to Oxford, where he met and studied under the Nobel Prize winning neuropathologist Sir Sherrington. Neuropathology was distinct from medicine in those days.

After a year, Penfield grew somewhat bored with the daily drudge and, his scholarship having ran out, moved to France where he worked in a military hospital tending to wounds and doing basic nursing tasks. In March 1916, traveling back to France from a week in Britain with friends, his ferry was torpedoed by a German submarine. 50 passengers died, Penfield was wounded. After the still floating ferry was towed into a French harbor, Penfied vowed to become a physician. He married shortly thereafter and, two years later, received his medical degree at Johns Hopkins. He continued his studies back at Merton, this time not as a helping hand but an MD with Sir William Osler, a hero of medicine in his own right, whom we will talk about on July 12, his birthday.

He then moved to Germany, a place he loved dearly despite the attack on the ferry, and worked with Otfrid Förster, who began experimenting with wake-state brain surgeries, a technique Penfield adopted and perfected over his career.

Medical Career

After a surgical apprenticeship under Harvey Cushing (another hero of medicine), he started on his lifelong task of understanding and treating epilepsy. He met and became friends with David Rockefeller, who provided the funds to start an institute under Penfield to perform surgeries and research into epilepsy. This idea met great resistance from other neurologists who considered Penfield a young upstart and not fit to inhabit such a role and power, ultimately failing the endeavor.

Instead, he left New York, disenchanted with academic politics, and moved to Montreal.

He only returned to the US once, to perform surgery on his own sister who suffered from a glioblastoma. She died a few years later, and although his work had added valuable and livable years to her life, Penfield never forgave himself for failing to remove all the tissue.

He became a Canadian citizen that year and opened the institute he had been denied in New York at Montreal’s McGill University.

Penfield Dissector

Here he invented the Penfield dissector, an instrument for least-invasive brain surgery and the Montréal Procedure, in which the origin location of epileptic seizures was pinpointed and carefully obliterated.

While researching this procedure, he perfected another of his inventions, neural stimulation. With the patient awake, parts of the opened brain were stimulated to pinpoint not only the origin of seizures but also to ensure no important areas were destroyed.

In 1951, he published, with Herbert Jasper, a book on the exact location of sensory and motor cortices. This book is used, unaltered, until today.

During his work, he also worked on temporal lobe stimulation and could trigger hallucinations, emotions, and other sensory and extrasensory perceptions. His work is still, today, the baseline for hallucination research.

He did the same for deja vu, which he showed to be an incorrect storage of just lived experiences in long term instead of transgressional memory, making the brain believe it’s “seen this before.”

After almost 30 years of research, Penfield left the world a catalogue of the human brain, unrivaled to this day. He perfected surgical treatments for heavy epilepsy, started the field of Neuropsychology, and conducted hundreds of research projects into functional neuroanatomy.

In his later years, he withdrew from research to support early childhood education. He passed away from abdominal cancer at age 85 in Montreal.

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