Wilder Penfield: the man who taught us how the brain works

Wilder Penfield, January 25, 1891 – April 5, 1976

Thanks to Google’s wonderful doodles in their search browser, I got to think about Wilder Penfield today.

The great neurosurgeon would have turned 127 years old today if humans had figured out longevity in his lifetime.

We have Penfield to thank for what we know about how the brain works, thanks to his work with epilepsy patients in the 1930’s. He then worked at McGill University, where he established the Montreal Neurological Institute in 1934.

That same year the Spokane-born Rhodes Scholar became a Canadian citizen.

Friendship with William Osler

His links to McGill may have began at Oxford, where he met and worked with William Osler. Newspapers mistakenly reported Penfield dead in 1916 after a torpedo attacked him while crossing the English Channel on a Red Cross mission in 1916. He recovered in Osler’s home.

He worked at a Paris military hospital during World War 1.

The Montreal Technique

After that, he worked with a German mentor, Otfried Foerster, who got good results using brain surgery to treat spinal injuries.

Penfield refined his work and became up with the Montreal Technique, which involved electronically stimulating the brain and asking patients to describe what they felt. This procedure not only allowed the surgeon to remove sections of the brain that caused epileptic seizures, but also helped him map which parts of the brain were responsible for various activities.

After he retired, he remained in Montreal helping students until his death of prostrate cancer at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

During his lifetime, his contributions were honoured when he received Britain’s Order of Merit and became a Companion of the Order of Canada. Fifteen years after he died, a heritage minute appeared about his work. He was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame three years later.

1991 Heritage Minute

The Google doodle highlights a quote from a 1991 Heritage minute television spot:

“Dr. Penfield, I smell burnt toast.”

According to Historica, where you can see the spot for yourself, the statement has become their “most famous line.” It was originally scripted:

“Dr. Penfield, I smell bacon and eggs.”


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Tracey Arial

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Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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