His studies in 1924 with the Madrid neurohistologist Pio del Rio-Hortega provided him with metallic staining techniques that yielded new information on the glia, the supporting cells of the nervous system. In 1928 he learned from the German surgeon Otfrid Foerster the method of excising brain scars to relieve focal epilepsy. That year he moved with his neurosurgical partner, William Vernon Cone, to work at Montréal's Royal Victoria Hospital, where they became associated with neurologist Colin K. Russel. In 1934, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the government of Québec, the city of Montréal and private donors, Penfield founded the Montreal Neurological Institute, which rapidly became an international centre for teaching, research and treatment related to diseases of the nervous system. He was its director until 1960.
Epilepsy became Penfield's great inspiration. His surgical studies yielded reports on brain tumours, the pial circulation, the mechanisms of headache, the localization of motor, sensory and speech functions, and the role of the hippocampus in memory mechanisms. Epilepsy arising in the temporal lobe of the brain assumed special importance because of the re-excitation of past experiences that occurred when the cortex was stimulated during surgery. Some of the modern theories of separable function of the 2 cerebral hemispheres were built upon his findings. His concept of centrencephalic seizures arising from deep midline portions of the brain had an important impact on the understanding of the relationship between the brain's structures and consciousness. Penfield's work brought him many high honours both within Canada and abroad. His scientific papers and the handbooks and monographs he wrote with associates became standard reference works on the function of the human brain.
In the last 15 years of his life Penfield enjoyed a second career as a writer of historical novels and medical biography. He devoted himself to public service, particularly in support of university education, and became first president of the Vanier Institute of the Family. He was widely known for promoting early second-language training. His writings from this period include The Mystery of the Mind (1975), summarizing his views on the mind/brain problem, and No Man Alone (1977), an autobiography of the years 1891-1934.
Penfield's most lasting legacy was the foundation and the establishment by endowment of the Montreal Neurological Institute. This neurological hospital integrated with a brain-research complex continues to provide a centre where both basic scientists and physicians study the brain; it has served as a model for similar units throughout the world. To Penfield the brain and the nervous system represented the most important unexplored field in the whole of science. "The problem of neurology," he wrote, "is to understand man himself." Among his honours, he received the Royal Bank Award.
Author WILLIAM FEINDEL
Links to Other Sites
The website for NeuroScience Canada highlights Canadian achievements in neuroscience research and offers an overview of the human nervous system and neurological disorders.
Historica’s acclaimed one-minute movies about Canadian history.
Dr. Wilder Penfield
A profile of Canadian medical researcher Dr. Wilder Penfield. Produced by the Virtual Museum of Canada and the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.