Penfield, Wilder


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Wilder Penfield was born on January 26th 1891 at Spokane, Washington, USA. His father was a doctor and surgeon. Mother and father soon drifted apart during Wilder's early years. At the age of 8, Wilder moved with the family (but minus father) to Hudson, Wisconsin. His upbringing was staunchly religious. Wilder's family were interested in the possibility of gaining a Rhodes scholarship for him to study in Oxford and Wilder projected a keen interest in the lives of the students of Oxford from afar: “In my fancy, I followed them to their classes, bicycling down the ancient streets and, later in the day, watched with delight as they ran across the college lawns on their way to the playing field and the river, all dressed in white” (Lewis, 1981, p. 23). In 1909, Wilder set out for Princeton university – a train journey of a day and a half – having the ambition to enter either medicine or the church. While there he studied medicine (the profession of his father and grandfather), and did indeed win a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford during the First World War. During Penfield's study of medicine at Oxford he was influenced by the eminent Oxford doctor and professor, Sir William Osler. At Oxford he was also influenced by the physiologist, Sir Charles Sherrington. Osler was noted for his kindness and consideration of patients, whereas in Sherrington, Penfield found a role model as great scientist. Sherrington was a pioneer in the study of the nervous system and it was with him that Penfield first came to study the brain. Sherrington was the most powerful scientific influence on Penfield. Penfield wrote “I looked through his eyes and came to realize that here in the nervous system was the great unexplored field – the undiscovered country in which the mystery of the mind of man might someday be explained”. (Lewis, p. 57) Penfield established himself as a surgeon in New York, but a significant move came in 1928 when he t ook up a joint appointment in Montreal, Canada as Professor of Neurosurgery at McGill University and Surgeon-in-Charge of Neurosurgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Neurosurgery was in its very infancy then and Penfield was to be one of the very few practicising it in Canada. In those days, Montreal was a city largely segregated between French- and English-speaking communities. Penfield, who spoke some French, extended a welcome hand of friendship to the French-speaking medical community. A personal challenge came to him in 1928, very early in his career at Montreal, when he examined his sister and found her to be suffering from a tumour of the frontal lobes. Ruth Penfield had suffered for years from epilepsy triggered by the tumour and now it was growing out of control. At that time little was known of the function of the frontal lobes except to attribute them with the title 'highest brain region'. They were associated with such things as moral reasoning. However, an operation was felt to be neces sary and Penfield trusted only himself to do it. Ruth's epilepsy was largely cured by the removal of tissue from the frontal lobe but her life became very disorganised after the operation. She survived only for 3 years. However, Penfield was not put off and became a powerful advocate of brain surgery as a treatment for epilepsy. Penfield pioneered the application of the technique of electroencephalogaphy to neurosurgery. This involved attaching electrodes to the skull and observing the gross electrical activity of the underlying brain tissue. This technique proved invaluable in locating abnormal patterns, pointing to pathology. Perhaps Penfi eld's best-known results were those on the recall of specific memories obtained after electrically stimulating regions of temporal lobe during neurosurgery. For example, in one brain location, a woman patient reported “I seem to see myself as I was when I was having my baby”. Penfield was led to speculate on the nature of consciousness and how the integration of information occurs in the brain. Deeply religious by background, he speculated on the nature of the soul and its relation to the neurons that he was studying in his professional life. Penfield rejected materialism, suggesting the existence of a spirit, mind or soul that transcends th e physical brain. He was concerned to reconcile his study of brain mechanisms with the existence of God and a soul. Source: Lewis, J. (1981) Something Hidden: A Biography of Wilder Penfield, Toronto, Doubleday.