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Wilder Penfield: Exploring the Human Brain

For the week of Monday September 27, 2010

On September 27, 1934, Wilder Graves Penfield founded the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI). At the time, the MNI was a unique place because it assembled neurologists, neurosurgeons and neuropathologists in one building. Working together, they conducted and shared scientific research to improve the treatment of patients with neurological conditions. By the end of his career as MNI director in 1960, Penfield had treated more than a thousand patients and developed a groundbreaking surgery for epilepsy called the Montréal Procedure.

Dr. Wilder Penfield and patient, ca. 1945
© Wilder Penfield Archive, Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital,nlc-12141

Penfield was born in Spokane, Washington, on January 26, 1891. He attended Princeton University where he studied literature and joined the wrestling and football teams. After graduating in 1913, Penfield won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. After the First World War, his interest in the new field of neuroscience led him to study groundbreaking neurosurgery and research techniques in Boston, New York, Spain and Germany.

In 1928, Penfield joined the medical faculty at McGill University. He served as a brain surgeon at the Royal Victoria and the General hospital in Montréal.

Penfield resolved to further his research after he was unable to completely remove his sister's brain tumour. Ultimately her tumour proved fatal. With grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, and government and private donations, Penfield built the MNI, an institute dedicated to the study and treatment of neurological disorders. At the MNI, researchers and physicians work as a team, sharing knowledge and new techniques. Throughout his directorship, Penfield fostered international ties, encouraging foreign medical students to study at the MNI. Over the years, the MNI trained hundreds of foreigners who later became distinguished researchers and neurosurgeons in their home countries.

Montreal Neurological Institute, 1934
© Wilder Penfield Archive, Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, nlc-12142

After his retirement, Penfield served as president of the Vanier Institute of the Family, a charitable organization that promotes the well-being of the family. He also began a second career as a writer. He wrote historical novels such as No Other Gods and The Torch, and biographies such as The Difficult Art of Giving, a biography of Alan Grant, the man who made possible the Rockefeller Foundation's generous grant. The Mystery of the Mind covered 40 years of Penfield's research. His autobiography, No Man Alone, was published after his death in 1976.

Celebrated as a researcher and communicator, and as the founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, Wilder Graves Penfield was designated in 1988 as a National Historic Person. In 1994, he was among the inaugural members of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

To learn more about Wilder Graves Penfield, please read "Mind Over Matter."

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