Wilder Graves Penfield, OM, CC, CMG, FRS

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Wilder Graves Penfield, I

Birthplace: Spokane, Washington, United States
Death: April 05, 1976 (85)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada (Abdominal cancer)
Place of Burial: Austin, Central Manitoba Census Division, Manitoba, Canada
Immediate Family:

Son of Charles Samuel Penfield and Jean Penfield
Husband of Helen Katherine Penfield
Father of Wilder Graves Penfield, II and Ruthmary Lewis
Brother of Herbert Penfield and Ruth Inglis

Occupation: Neurosurgeon, Neurosurgen
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Wilder Graves Penfield, OM, CC, CMG, FRS


Wilder Graves Penfield, OM, CC, CMG, FRS (January 26, 1891 – April 5, 1976) was a Canadian neurosurgeon. During his life he was called "the greatest living Canadian". He devoted much thinking to the functionings of the mind, and continued until his death to contemplate whether there was any scientific basis for the existence of the human soul.


Penfield was born in Spokane, Washington (but spent most of his life in Hudson, Wisconsin) on January 25 or January 26, 1891. He studied at Princeton University, where was a member of Cap and Gown Club and played on the football team. After graduation in 1913, he was hired briefly as the coach. He then obtained a Rhodes Scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, where he studied neuropathology under Sir Charles Scott Sherrington. He obtained his medical degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He spent several years training at Oxford, where he met William Osler. In 1924 he worked for five months with Pio del Rio-Hortega characterising the type of glial cells known as oligodendroglia. He also studied in Germany, and New York.

After taking surgical apprenticeship under Harvey Cushing, he obtained a position at the Neurological Institute of New York, where he carried out his first solo operations against epilepsy. While in New York, he met David Rockefeller, who desired to endow an institute where Penfield could study the surgical treatment of epilepsy. However, academic politics among the New York neurologists prevented the establishment of this institute in New York; subsequently, Penfield was invited by Sir Vincent Meredith to Montreal in 1928. There, Penfield taught at McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital, becoming the city's first neurosurgeon.

In 1934 he founded and became the first Director of McGill University's world-famous Montreal Neurological Institute and the associated Montreal Neurological Hospital, which was established with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, 1934 is also the year he became a Canadian citizen. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1950. He retired in 1960 and 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.) He was awarded the 1960 Lister Medal for his contributions to surgical science. The corresponding Lister Oration, given at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, was delivered on April 27, 1961, and was titled 'Activation of the Record of Human Experience'. In 1967 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1994 he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Much of his archival material is housed at the Osler Library of 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 Mrs. Pauline Vanier, née Archer, he co-founded the Vanier Institute of the Family, which Penfield helped found "to promote and guide education in the home -- man's first classroom." He was also an early proponent of bilingualism from childhood onward.

He died on April 5, 1976 of abdominal cancer at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.

Neural Stimulation

Penfield was a groundbreaking researcher and highly 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 lateralization of brain function. Penfield's maps showed considerable overlap between regions (i.e. 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; we now know that this is due to the fractured somatotropy of the motor cortex. 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. In reality, however, the reported episodes of recall occurred in less than five percent of his patients, and these results have not been replicated by modern surgeons. His development of the neurosurgical technique that produced the less injurious meningo-cerebral scar became widely accepted in the field of neurosurgery, where the "Penfield dissector" is still in daily use.


Avenue du Docteur-Penfield (45.500342°N 73.583103°W), on the slope of Mount Royal in Montreal, was named in Penfield's honour on October 5, 1978. Part of this avenue borders McGill's campus and actually intersects with Promenade Sir-William-Osler - to the amusement of many medical historians who can say "meet me at Osler and Penfield". Ironically, Randolph Evans November 25, 1976 (year of Wilder Penfield's death) shooting death by NYPD's Robert Torsney was named for the epileptic condition he named Automatism of Penfield that Officer Torsney was diagnosed with.

Pop culture references

Wilder Penfield was the subject of a memorable Heritage Minute, dramatizing his development of the Montreal procedure. When Dr. Penfield stimulates the seizure-producing part of her brain, an epileptic patient exclaims: "I can smell burnt toast!" This Heritage Minute was widely shown and made Penfield a household name throughout Canada.

In science fiction author Philip K. Dick's masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, characters use a household device called a Penfield Mood Organ to dial up emotions on demand.

Author J.G. Ballard's novel Super-Cannes has a main character who is a manipulative psychiatrist named Wilder Penrose.

Shirow Masamune's anime series Ghost Hound makes several references to Dr. Penfield and his studies.

Dead Sea Apes, a Manchester, UK based psychedelic rock band have a song entitled Wilder Penfield, from The Sun Behind The Sun, their collaboration with Black Tempest, to be released in February 2013 on Cardinal Fuzz records. In Ray Loriga's 1999 novel, Tokio ya no nos quiere, Penfield's method of stimulating the temporal lobes is described and modified to treat the main character who has issues with memory recollection.

In the video game, Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht, "Penfield Mapping" is seemingly the process of drawing a Cortical homunculus, necessary for one to enter a virtual environment.

  • Military draft registration: Between 1917 and 1918 - Baltimore City no 12, Maryland, United States
  • Immigration: 1927 - New York, New York, United States
  • Immigration: Sep 26 1928
  • Immigration: 1931 - New York, New York, United States
  • Immigration: Aug 11 1948
  • Residence: 1900 - Hudson city Ward 3, St. Croix, Wisconsin, United States
  • Residence: 1900 - Blaine and Belmount Precincts Spokane city Ward 2, Spokane, Washington, United States
  • Residence: June 1 1900 - Spokane, Spokane, Washington, United States
  • Residence: 1905 - Hudson, St. Croix, Wisconsin, United States
  • Residence: June 1 1905 - Hudson, St. Croix, Wisconsin, United States
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Wilder Graves Penfield, OM, CC, CMG, FRS's Timeline

January 26, 1891
Spokane, Washington, United States
June 6, 1918
Baltimore, Maryland, United States
April 5, 1976
Age 85
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
April 5, 1976
Age 85
Austin, Central Manitoba Census Division, Manitoba, Canada