Lives of the fellows

Wilder Graves Penfield

b.26 January 1891 d.5 April 1976
OM(1953) CC(1967) CMG(1943) MD J Hopkins USA(1918) MA Oxon(1920) FRCSC(1929) DSc(1935) PRCSC(1939-41) FRS(1943) Hon FRCS Hon FRSM Hon FRCP(1955)†

Wilder Graves Penfield was born at Spokane, Washington, USA, the son of Charles Samuel Penfield, a surgeon, and Jean Jefferson, daughter of a banker. He was educated at Princeton and awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford in 1913, but before taking it up spent a year as full-time coach to the Princeton football team. In 1914 he went to Oxford to study medicine as a pupil of Sir William Osier; the first world war intervened and Penfield served with an American Red Cross Hospital in France. In 1916 he was severely wounded and returned to America to study at Johns Hopkins Medical School, Baltimore, where he graduated in 1918. He then returned to Oxford, completing his degree in 1920.

From 1921-28 he was junior attending surgeon at the Presbyterian Hospital, New York, and also assistant professor of surgery at Columbia University. In 1924, on the suggestion of William Clarke, the surgical pathologist, Penfield began to study the process of healing of experimental wounds in the brain. Disappointed with his histological techniques, he recalled that Sherrington had advised him to try the methods of Ramon y Cajal, and from March to September 1924 he worked in Madrid with Pio del Rio-Hortega, Cajal’s brilliant pupil. This short period was of great importance in his future career. As he wrote later, ‘With the anatomical skills I had learned in Madrid, I could now make my own fundamental scientific approach to problems in neurosurgery. And I longed to apply it to the whole field of clinical neurology.’

In 1928 Penfield moved to Montreal, Canada, as neurosurgeon to the Royal Victoria and Montreal General Hospital, and remained there for the rest of his life. He became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1934, the year in which he was elected professor of neurology at McGill University and director of the Montreal Neurological Institute (endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation), which he founded. He resigned his professorship at McGill University in 1954 but remained a director of the Institute until 1960, when he retired.

Penfield was one of the great neurosurgeons of his day, and the Montreal Neurological Institute soon became the Mecca for neurosurgeons and neurologists from all over the world. He based his brilliant surgery on a sound and deep knowledge of the working of the brain which, inspired by the teachings of Sir Charles Sherrington during his studies at Oxford, excelled that of any of his contemporaries. Penfield’s studies in epilepsy were classics of accurate observation and documentation and the Institute had an international reputation in this special field. In collaboration with HH Jasper he had the support of the new science of electroencephalography. His operations on conscious patients carried him into the study of the localization of cerebral function, and thus into the deeper realm of philosophy concerning language function and the relation of brain, mind and spirit, subjects which absorbed more of his thoughts in his later years.

He wrote well and clearly, and had the gift of making abstruse concepts intelligible to the average reader. Together with Herbert Jasper he wrote Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Brain (1954). His last book was entitled The Mystery of the Mind (1975). In 1958 he delivered the Sherrington Lecture at Liverpool University on ‘The excitable cortex in conscious man’.

Wilder Penfield was president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada from 1939 to 1941. In Britain his standing was recognized by his election, in 1943, to the fellowship of the Royal Society, and by his appointment to the Order of Merit in 1953. In 1967 he was appointed Companion of the Order of Canada. He was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and Edinburgh, and of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and Edinburgh. He was an honorary Doctor of Civil Law at Oxford University and held several other honorary doctorates from Canada, USA and Europe. A man of outstanding intellect, which he applied with insight and compassion to a diversity of subjects, he was not only a fine surgeon and a great scientist, he was an even greater human being. He was infinitely concerned about his profession and the whole human race, and there was nothing he would not do to help wherever he could.

In 1917 he married Helen Kermott, daughter of Edward Kermott a physician, and they had two sons and two daughters. They were deeply in love with one another and it was an extremely happy marriage.

Penfield held that it was in the power of most people to adopt a second career after retirement from their first. He himself exemplified this by writing a number of enchanting novels and biographies. He was engaged in writing his own autobiography when he died, and this was published in 1977, No man alone: a neurosurgeon's life, Boston/Toronto, Little Brown and Company, with a foreword by Lord Adrian. He was a gentle, charming, erudite, and very approachable man, a great organizer, administrator, surgeon and teacher, devoted to research and the advancement of knowledge, a prolific writer and a fine citizen. The Montreal Institute was founded on the concept of a multidisciplinary approach, and he left behind him many pupils throughout the world trained in various neurological disciplines, and themselves making advances to knowledge.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.

[Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1978, 24, 473-513;, 1976, 1, 1079; Lancet, 1976, 1, 868; Times, 7 & 17 Apr 1976; Osier Library Newsletter, June 1976, No. 22; Osier Club Newsletter, June 1976; Canadian Med. Assoc. J., 1976]

(Volume VII, page 457)

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