This Week in History


Mind Over Matter

For the week of Monday January 26, 2004

On January 26, 1891, Wilder Graves Penfield was born in Spokane, Washington. His developments in neurosurgery and neurology revolutionized modern medicine. His distinction as founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute ensured his place in medical history.

The Montreal Neurological Institute
The Montreal Neurological Institute
© Photo by Neurophotography. Courtesy of the Montreal Neurological Institute

Penfield studied at Princeton and then won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University where he chose to study physiology. Penfield gained experience at hospitals in France during the First World War while he was on study breaks. He earned a B.A. in physiology from Oxford in 1916 and a medical degree from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1918.

Penfield's main interest was the brain. At that time, neurosurgery and neurology were separate disciplines. Most neurosurgeons had been trained in general surgery, not in specifically brain-related matters. Neurologists studied the function of the brain through laboratory experiments and clinical trials. Penfield's revolutionary idea was to merge the two fields. Penfield first put this method to use during his studies on epilepsy.

Dr. Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute
Dr. Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute
© Courtesy of the Penfield Archive and the Montreal Neurological Institute

In 1927, Dr. Edward Archibald, Surgical Chief at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montréal, invited Penfield to develop a department of neurosurgery at the hospital. Penfield continued his research on epilepsy with Professor Otfrid Foerster, a world- famous neurologist and neurosurgeon, in Germany. By operating with Foerster and examining brain tissue with microscopic techniques, Penfield learned more about brain mapping by electrical stimulation. This method formed the basis of Penfield's many contributions to understanding the human brain.

Penfield's dream, the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), finally came into being in 1934 with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the government of Quebec, the City of Montréal, and private donors. Penfield's insistence on combining neurosurgery and neurology finally became a reality. He was Director of the MNI for 25 years. The MNI welcomed patients and students from all around the world. Because of its medical breakthroughs and its international exposure, the MNI's brain research became an inspiration to others wanting to start neurological organizations.

When he stopped performing surgery in 1960, Penfield began his "second career." He spent the rest of his life writing books and articles, travelling the world and lecturing. He continued to participate regularly in activities at the MNI until a few months before his death. On April 5, 1976, Wilder Graves Penfield died in Montréal. As a person of national historic significance, he is recognized by a plaque in Montréal.

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