Wilder Penfield, Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill, revolutionized our understanding of the human brain. With help from collaborators, Penfield refined and extended a daring surgical technique learned from his German mentor, Otfried Foerster.
The “Montreal Procedure” allowed patients to remain awake and describe their reactions while the surgeon stimulated different areas of the brain.
Penfield applied this procedure to the surgical treatment of epilepsy and used the information gained during many hundreds of brain operations to create functional maps of the cortex (surface) of the brain. He mapped accurately for the first time the cortical areas relating to speech. Penfield also discovered that stimulation of the temporal lobes provoked startlingly vivid recollections – proof of the physical basis of memory.
A Rhodes Scholar, Penfield studied and interned at Oxford, Johns Hopkins and other prestigious institutions in the U.S. and England, before returning to America to take up a position at Columbia University and Presbyterian Hospital in 1921.
From the beginnings of his career, Penfield was driven to improve the practice of neurosurgery. “Brain surgery is a terrible profession,” he said in 1921. “If I did not feel it will become different in my lifetime, I should hate it.”
Recruited to McGill from New York in 1928, Penfield brought with him a vision: to create an institute where clinicians and scientists from different disciplines would work side by side. He convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to endow and fund the construction of Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), which was opened under Penfield’s leadership in 1934, the same year he became a Canadian citizen. His work earned him a number of awards and recognitions, including a dozen honorary degrees, a Fellowship of the Royal Society of London, and a Flavelle Medal.
The pioneering clinician and researcher 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.
His acquaintance with legendary physician and former McGill professor Sir William Osler may have played a role in cultivating Penfield’s holistic view. The neurosurgeon was fascinated not just by the physical workings of the brain, but how they influenced the mind and the personality. “The problem of neurology,” he wrote in 1965, “is to understand man himself.”