Wilder Penfield

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Wilder Graves Penfield was born in Spokane, Washington, USA, on January 26, 1891, and died in Montreal, Canada, on April 5, 1976. He was best known for developing brain mapping and epilepsy research. He was a published author of historical fiction, a medical biography and academic texts. He was also the founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute.[1]


Honors for Penfield include the Medal of Freedom, French Legion of Honor, Order of Canada and the British Order of Merit.


Notably Penfield was the first neurosurgeon to operate on the exposed brain of an anesthetized patient. During the surgery Penfield probed the patient's brain using electrical probes to discover the trigger point for the seizure. He then removed the tissue that caused the epileptic seizures thereby curing the patient. The procedure became known as the Montreal Procedure. During his years of medical research Penfield specialized in epilepsy and part of his efforts he learned that excision of a cerebral cicatrix would relieve a patient of focal epilepsy without neurological deficits.[2]

As part of his research, he mapped the brain by probing the exposed brain and observing patient sensations. The information gained through this procedure was used to map the brain. “He mapped the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain central to memory, awareness, thought, speech, attention and perception,” said Dr. John Alksne in an interview with a Investor's Business Daily journalist.

From this research he contributed knowledge about brain tumors, the pial circulation and headache mechanisms. Further insight was gained into the neurophysiology of the brain and the anatomical basis for memory. Penfield authored over 300 publications including a shared collaboration of a textbook on neurology published in 1932 called Cytology and Cellular Pathology of the Nervous System. The book was turned into a three volume set of textbooks.

Early life

He was born in Spokane to Charles Samuel and Jean Jefferson Penfield. His father was a physician who died when he was young. His mother supported her family by teaching the Bible and writing. After his father's death the family moved to Wisconsin where he attended the Galahad School.

He graduated in 1909 and started his college career at Princeton. Later in his academic career he received the Rhodes scholarship and Beit Memorial Research fellowship at Oxford University. He studied under Sir William Osler and Sir Charles Scott Sherrington while attending Oxford.


He received his medical degree from John Hopkins University in 1918 and then conducted research at Sherrington's laboratory from 1919 to 1921. Penfield returned to the United States to receive training in general surgery and neurosurgery in New York. By 1924 he founded the Laboratory of Neurocytology at Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia University.

By 1928 he received an appointment to serve as a neurosurgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Montreal General Hospital. It was during this time he completed his surgical technique for severe epilepsy.

As a teacher he taught neurosurgery at McGill University from 1933 to 1954.[3]


Penfield became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1934 and served as a colonel in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps from 1945 to 1946.

War contributions

During the war effort he headed many wartime projects including research into motion sickness, decompression sickness and air transport of head injury patients.

He retired in 1960 and spent the next 15 years writing historical fiction and an autobiography which he finished three weeks before his death.


Penfield married Helen Katherine Kermott in 1917. The couple had four children.


  1. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 2011-02-28.
  2. [+http://www.mta.ca/about_canada/study_guide/doctors/penfield.html Canadian Medicine: Doctors and Discoveries]. Retrieved on 2011-02-28.
  3. CMAJ -- Table of Contents (June 19 1976, 114 [12)]. Retrieved on 2011-02-28.