Dr. Wilder Penfield: Biography & Research

Instructor: David White
Wilder Penfield has contributed some of the most important research to the medical community in the last century. Through this lesson, you will learn about his background and explore some of the theories and findings that have made him an icon in the world of medicine.

Who Was Wilder Penfield?

If you ever stop and think about it, the human brain is a truly amazing thing. It has, among other things, the ability to record and store information for later use, and it can even trick us into seeing and hearing things that aren't really there. Centuries ago, these experiences might have been attributed to something like witchcraft or possession, but thanks to the pioneering work of Wilder Penfield, we know better.

Wilder Penfield was an American born Canadian neurosurgeon whose important research spanned the first half of the 20th century. Born in Spokane, WA in 1891, Penfield's mother relocated to Wisconsin with the children in 1899 following her divorce. When he was 13, Penfield's mother found some information on the new Rhodes scholarship that offered a considerable amount of scholarship money to students that demonstrated strong intellectual and athletic abilities. Determined for him to win the scholarship, Penfield's mother pushed him to achieve in both areas.

Wilder Penfield, 1934.

After graduating from the Galahad School for Boys at the top of his class, Penfield attended Yale University, graduating with a degree in literature in 1913. The following year, his goals finally came to fruition when he received the Rhodes scholarship and traveled to Oxford where he began studying medicine at Merton College.

Shortly after WWI begun, Penfield was on a ship transporting him to France where he was to serve in a Red Cross hospital when the boat was struck by a German torpedo. Once recuperated from his injuries, Penfield returned to the US and completed his medical training at John's Hopkins University in 1918, after which he took a position at the Neurological Institute of New York.

When academic politics prevented him from establishing his own institute in New York to study epilepsy, Penfield relocated to Montreal in 1928, where he began teaching at McGill University and acting as surgeon at Royal Victoria Hospital.

Neurological Research

By 1934, Penfield had become a Canadian citizen and, using funding provided by David Rockefeller, opened the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. From this point forward, Wilder Penfield built a career on groundbreaking research that has changed neuroscience in profound ways.

Inspired by his sister's struggle with epilepsy, Penfield began his career in Montreal searching for greater understanding and a possible cure for the condition. His search led to a surgical approach now referred to as the Montreal Procedure. The procedure involved using local anesthetic before removing a piece of skull in order to gain access to the brain. Because the patient was still conscious, they were able to identify which part of the body was being stimulated by each part of the brain, giving Penfield the ability to find the location of the seizures and remove the tissue.

Penfield's research on epilepsy brought much better-developed understandings of brain function, primarily through the creation of the sensory map that identified which parts of the brain controlled each part of the body. Particularly significant was that Penfield's maps demonstrated a number of overlaps in brain functions, meaning that different parts of the brain worked together to execute certain functions.

Memory Research

Penfield's work on epilepsy and sensory mapping eventually led him into more uncharted territory, specifically into the workings of memory and sensation. As he had done in his treatment of epilepsy, Penfield experimented with stimulation of the temporal lobe, which is responsible for, among other things, processing visual memories, language, and emotions. Penfield found that when the temporal lobe was stimulated, the person experienced a range of unusual things, like auditory hallucinations and inappropriate smells.

Penfield focused much of his work on the temporal lobe, which is responsible for memory, language, and emotion.

In his research into stimulation of the temporal lobe, Penfield found a curious phenomenon among patients in which they would recall an experience from their past, yet they were unable to remember when or where it happened. These reports led to further exploration of memory, including the often experienced and widely misunderstood phenomenon of déjà vu.

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