Wilder Graves Penfield OM CC CMG FRS (January 26, 1891 – April 5, 1976) was an American-Canadian neurosurgeon. He expanded brain surgery's methods and techniques, including mapping the functions of various regions of the brain such as the cortical homunculus. His scientific contributions on neural stimulation expand across a variety of topics including hallucinations, illusions, and déjà vu. Penfield devoted much of his thinking to mental processes, including contemplation of whether there was any scientific basis for the existence of the human soul.
OM CC CMG FRS
Penfield in 1934
Wilder Graves Penfield|
January 26, 1891
Spokane, Washington, United States
April 5, 1976 (aged 85)|
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Penfield was born in Spokane, Washington, on January 26,[Notes 1] 1891, and spent most of his early life in Hudson, Wisconsin. He studied at Princeton University, where he was a member of Cap and Gown Club and played on the football team. After graduation in 1913, he was hired briefly as the team coach. In 1915 he obtained a Rhodes Scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, where he studied neuropathology under Sir Charles Scott Sherrington. After one term at Merton, Penfield went to France where he served as a dresser in a military hospital in the suburbs of Paris. He was wounded in 1916 when the ferry he was aboard, the SS Sussex, was torpedoed. The following year, he married Helen Kermott, and began studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, attaining his medical degree in 1918; this was followed by a short period as a house surgeon at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. Returning to Merton College in 1919, Penfield spent the next two years completing his studies; during this time he met William Osler. In 1924, he worked for five months with Pío del Río Hortega characterising the type of glial cells known as oligodendroglia. He also studied in Germany with Fedor Krause and Otfrid Foerster, as well as in New York City.
After taking a surgical apprenticeship under Harvey Cushing, he obtained a position at the Neurological Institute of New York, where he carried out his first solo operations to treat epilepsy. While in New York, he met David Rockefeller, who wished to endow an institute where Penfield could further study the surgical treatment of epilepsy. Academic politics amongst the New York neurologists, however, prevented its establishment in New York, so, in 1928, Penfield accepted an invitation from Sir Vincent Meredith to move to Montreal, Quebec. There, Penfield taught at McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital, becoming the city's first neurosurgeon.
In 1934, Penfield, along with Dr. William Cone, founded and became the first director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University, established with the Rockefeller funding. That year, he also became a Canadian citizen (a British subject within what was then the British Empire).
Penfield was unable to save his only sister, Ruth, who died from brain cancer, though complex surgery he performed added years to her life.
Penfield was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1950 and retired ten years later in 1960. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in the 1953 New Year Honours list. He turned his attention to writing, producing a novel as well as his autobiography No Man Alone. A later biography, Something Hidden, was written by his grandson Jefferson Lewis.
In 1960, the year he retired, Penfield was awarded the Lister Medal for his contributions to surgical science. He delivered the corresponding Lister Oration, "Activation of the Record of Human Experience", at the Royal College of Surgeons of England on April 27, 1961. In 1967, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and, in 1994, was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Much of his archival material is housed in the Osler Library at McGill University.
In his later years, Penfield dedicated himself to the public interest, particularly in support of university education. With his friends Governor-General Georges Vanier and Pauline Vanier, he co-founded the Vanier Institute of the Family "to promote and guide education in the home – man's first classroom." He was also an early proponent of childhood bilingualism.
Penfield died on April 5, 1976, of abdominal cancer at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. He and his wife, Helen, had their ashes buried on the family property in East Bolton on Sargent's Bay, Lake Memphremagog.
Penfield was a groundbreaking researcher and original surgeon. With his colleague Herbert Jasper, he invented the Montreal procedure in which he treated patients with severe epilepsy by destroying nerve cells in the brain where the seizures originated. Before operating, he stimulated the brain with electrical probes while the patients were conscious on the operating table (under only local anesthesia), and observed their responses. In this way he could more accurately target the areas of the brain responsible, reducing the side-effects of the surgery.
This technique also allowed him to create maps of the sensory and motor cortices of the brain (see cortical homunculus) showing their connections to the various limbs and organs of the body. These maps are still used today, practically unaltered. Along with Herbert Jasper, he published this work in 1951 (2nd ed., 1954) as the landmark Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain. This work contributed a great deal to understanding the localization of brain function. Penfield's maps showed considerable overlap between regions (e.g. the motor region controlling muscles in the hand sometimes also controlled muscles in the upper arm and shoulder) a feature which he put down to individual variation in brain size and localisation: it has since been established that this is due to the fractured somatotopy of the motor cortex. From these results he developed his cortical homunculus map, which is how the brain sees the body from an inside perspective.
Penfield reported that stimulation of the temporal lobes could lead to vivid recall of memories. Oversimplified in popular psychology publications, including the best-selling I'm OK – You're OK, this seeded the common misconception that the brain continuously "records" experiences in perfect detail, although these memories are not available to conscious recall. Reported episodes of recall occurred in less than five percent of his patients, though these results have been replicated by modern surgeons. Penfield's hypothesis on this subject was revised in 1970. His development of the Penfield dissector, the neurosurgical technique that produced the less injurious meningo-cerebral scar, became widely accepted in the field of neurosurgery and remains in regular use.
Penfield's scientific contributions go past the somatosensory and the motor cortices; his extensive work of the functions of the brain also included charting the functions of the parietal and temporal cortices. Of his 520 patients, 40 reported that while their temporal lobe was stimulated with an electrode they would recall dreams, smells, visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as out-of-body experiences. In his studies, Penfield found that when the temporal lobe was stimulated it produced a combination of hallucinations, dream, and memory recollection. These experiences would only last as long as the electrode stimulations were present on the cortex, and in some cases when patient experienced hallucinatory experiences that evoked certain smells, sensations of flashing light, stroking the back of their hand, and many others. Other stimulations had patients experiencing déjà vu, fear, loneliness, and strangeness. Certain areas of patients' temporal lobes were stimulated with an electrode in order to experience past memories. Penfield called these perceptual illusions (physical hallucinations) interpretive responses. According to Penfield, when the temporal lobe was stimulated there were two types of perceptions experienced by patients:
Penfield stressed that the "things that have been recorded are the things which once came within the spot-light of attention". Penfield had over 25 years of research using electrical stimulation to produce experiential hallucinations. His conclusions show that patients experience a range of hallucinations from simple to complex. They also show that hallucinations can be stimulated.
Penfield's expansion of the interpretive cortex includes the phenomenon of déjà vu. Déjà vu is the sensation that an experience a person is having has previously been experienced. Déjà vu is typically experienced by people between the ages of 15 to 25, and affects approximately 60-70% of the population. It is thought to be a mismatch of the sensory input people receive and the system in which the brain recalls memory. Another thought on the cause of déjà vu is that there is a malfunction in the brain's short- and long-term memory systems where memories become stored in incorrect systems. There are a couple of ways one can recognize familiar experiences – by mentally retrieving memories of a previous experience, or by having a feeling that an experience has occurred when it actually has not. Déjà vu is having that feeling of familiarity in a situation that is completely new. Memory is good at being familiar with objects, however it does not do well with the configuration or organization of objects. Déjà vu is an extreme reaction to the mind telling an individual that they are having a familiar experience. Déjà vu is thought to be a consistent phenomenon. However, it has been associated with epilepsy, and with multiple psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and anxiety, but there has not been a clear, frequent diagnostic correlation between déjà vu and neurological or psychiatric disorders, except with patients that have a possibility of being epileptic. Temporal lobe epilepsy affects the hippocampus. Patients that suffer from this medical diagnosis are said to have a misfiring of the brain's neurons. The neurons transmit at random which results in the false sense of experiencing a familiar situation that had previously been experienced. Different types of déjà vu are difficult to pinpoint because researchers who have studied déjà vu have developed their own categories and differentiations. On a broad perspective of research that is available, déjà vu can be divided into two categories: associative déjà vu and biological déjà vu. Associative déjà vu is typically experienced by normal, healthy individuals who experience things with the senses that can be associated to other experiences or past events. Biological déjà vu occurs in individuals who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy. Their experience of déjà vu occurs usually just before they experience a seizure. Recent research is looking at the new occurrence of chronic déjà vu. Chronic déjà vu is when an individual is experiencing a constant state of déjà vu. Failure of the temporal lobe is thought to be the cause of this phenomenon because the circuits that connect to memories get stuck in an active state, and create memories that never happened.
Penfield was designated a National Historic Person in 1988 by the government of Canada. As such, a federal historical marker from the national Historic Sites & Monuments Board and Parks Canada was erected, located at a building that bears his name on University Street, part of the McGill University campus in Montreal.
A postage stamp honouring Penfield was issued by Canada Post on March 15, 1991.
Avenue du Docteur-Penfield (Mount Royal in Montreal, was named in Penfield's honour on October 5, 1978. Part of this avenue borders McGill University's campus and intersects with Promenade Sir-William-Osler – meaning medical historians and the like may amuse themselves by arranging to "meet at Osler and Penfield".), on the slope of
Wilder Penfield Elementary School was also established as part of the Lester B. Pearson School Board in honour of Wilder Graves Penfield's contribution to the public sector in Montreal, notably alongside his interest in further developing education.
Penfield building, one of John Abbott College's ten buildings, also bears the name of the famous neurosurgeon.
Penfield was the subject of a Google doodle on January 26, 2018, marking the 127th anniversary of his birth. The doodle appeared on the Google homepage in selected countries on five continents.
Penfield was awarded many honorary degrees in recognition of his medical career. These include:
|New Jersey||1939||Princeton University||Doctor of Science (D.Sc)|
|British Columbia||30 October 1946||University of British Columbia||Doctor of Science (D.Sc)|
|Saskatchewan||29 September 1959||University of Saskatchewan||Doctor of Laws (LL.D)|
|Ontario||1953||University of Toronto||Doctor of Science (D.Sc)|
|England||1953||University of Oxford||---|
|Manitoba||1955||University of Manitoba||Doctor of Science (D.Sc)|
|Ontario||1957||Queen's University||Doctor of Laws (LL.D)|
|Quebec||6 October 1960||McGill University||Doctor of Science (D.Sc)|
|Ontario||May 1962||McMaster University||Doctor of Science (D.Sc)|
|Alberta||29 March 1967||University of Calgary||---|
|Ontario||16 May 1970||Royal Military College of Canada||Doctor of Science (D.Sc)|
|Ontario||21 September 1972||University of Western Ontario||Doctor of Science (D.Sc)|
Between his graduation from Princeton and his studies at Oxford, Penfield served as Princeton's head football coach for one season.
|Princeton Tigers (Independent) (1914)|
Wilder Penfield was born in Spokane, Washington, and spent much of his youth in Hudson, Wisconsin. ... During his life he was called "the greatest living Canadian".