Once described as the ‘greatest living Canadian’, Wilder Penfield would have been 127 years on January 26.
Once described as the “greatest living Canadian”, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield would have been 127 years old on January 26.
Penfield is recognised for his advances in mapping the brain and for the groundbreaking epilepsy treatment known as the Montreal Procedure.
Today, Google is changing its logo in 13 countries to a doodle, or illustration, in his honour.
Despite his success and achievements, he was not able to save his only sister, Ruth, who died from brain cancer, although complex surgery he performed added years to her life. This is his story:
Montreal’s first neurosurgeon
Penfield was born on January 26, in Spokane, Washington. His father, Charles Penfield, was a physician who didn’t succeed in his career.
His father left his family, and Wilder ended up living with his mother, Jean Jefferson, who is the one who told him about the Rhodes Scholarship that he ended up winning.
- He studied neuropathology at Princeton and Merton College in Oxford and then served at a military hospital in Paris. He also studied in Spain and Germany.
Penfield believed studying medicine was “the best way to make the world a better place.”
In 1917 he married Helen Kermott, who shared his altruism and love of helping others. Wilder and Helen had four children. One of his daughters also founded a children’s care centre.
- After taking a surgical apprenticeship, he obtained a position at the Neurological Institute of New York, where he carried out his first solo operation to treat epilepsy.
In 1928, Penfield accepted an invitation to move to Montreal, Quebec. There, Penfield taught at McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital, becoming Montreal’s first neurosurgeon.
In 1934, he became a Canadian citizen after he and Dr William Cone founded the Montreal Neurological Institute.
In 1935, he published three case studies describing the psychological effects of frontal lobe surgery.
- He used his experience treating his sister to explain the link between brain and behaviour. He said: “If she were alive, I am sure she would approve of such an analysis in the hope it would help others.”
He kept his family close throughout his career, writing the book Man and His Family, which stressed the need to nurture and encourage positive family life.
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