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Science Flashback

Wilder Penfield: Charting the undiscovered country of the brain

Neuroscience pioneer Dr. Wilder Penfield (1891-1976) helped establish the world-renowned Montreal Neurological Institute and ushered in a new era for medical research, based on scientific collaboration rather than individual achievement.

Wilder Penfield

More than 30 years after his death, Dr. Wilder Penfield is still considered one of Canada’s undisputed medical giants. A skilled surgeon, Dr. Penfield’s career was shaped by his realization that the brain was an “undiscovered country in which the mystery of the mind of man might someday be explained.” From that starting point, he broke new ground in neuroscience that put Canada on the map as a world leader in research on the brain and the nervous system. Dr. Penfield contributed immensely to the treatment of epilepsy and to our understanding of memory and speech mechanisms. His extensive scientific writings remain classic references on the function of the brain.

His most enduring monument is the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. “The Neuro,” as it is known, sprang from a visionary proposal in the 1920s that was truly radical for the time. Dr. Penfield wanted to break down the forbidding and entrenched silos that divided neurology and neurosurgery. His goal was to bring together physicians and scientists to conduct integrated research into mental disease and the physiology of the brain. This research would be carried out in a teaching hospital so that the scientists would not lose touch with the reality of patients. Students, thrown into this unique mix, would leave well-schooled in the art of patient care and armed with the skills necessary for research.

Virtual brain surgery

There is no room for error in brain surgery. Fortunately, neurosurgeons now have a tool that lets them develop and rehearse a complex procedure on a simulator before heading to the operating room.
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The Rockefeller Foundation was so struck with Dr. Penfield’s proposal that it donated half the money needed to build the building and to create a permanent fund to support the research. Other large grants followed from the Government of Quebec, the City of Montréal and generous donors. When the Neuro was up and running in 1934, as part of McGill University, and with Dr. Penfield as its “Chief,” it quickly became an internationally renowned focal point for neurological research, teaching and treatment. As well, Dr. Penfield is credited with ushering in a new era for medical research, based on scientific collaboration rather than individual achievement.

As part of this teamwork approach, Dr. Penfield also worked hard to break down the equally entrenched barriers between the French and English Canadian neurologists in Montréal. This culminated in the founding of the Société neurologique de Montréal/Montreal Neurological Society in the mid-1930s. Later in his career, Dr. Penfield became a staunch proponent for language training at a young age, based on his findings that a brain made bilingual or multilingual at an early age “becomes a superior instrument.”

Dr. Wilder Penfield developed the breakthrough Montreal Procedure for the surgical treatment of epilepsy. Through the use of local anesthetic, the patient remains conscious and can respond to questions while the surgeon electrically stimulates different parts of the exposed brain to locate the origin of the patient’s debilitating seizures, and identify what parts could be safely removed to alleviate the seizures. Information from these surgeries allowed Dr. Penfield to map the brain and its functions.

Courtesy of The Penfield Archive, Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University

Dr. Wilder Penfield developed the breakthrough Montreal Procedure for the surgical treatment of epilepsy. Through the use of local anesthetic, the patient remains conscious and can respond to questions while the surgeon electrically stimulates different parts of the exposed brain to locate the origin of the patient’s debilitating seizures and identify what parts could be safely removed to alleviate the seizures. Information from these surgeries allowed Dr. Penfield to map the brain and its functions.

Watch a “Heritage Moment” video dramatizing one of these operations.

Wilder Penfield continued as the Neuro’s director until 1960, when he embarked upon his “second career” as a prolific writer of history and biography. Today, the Neuro remains one of the world’s top neuroscience centres, and it continues to be a trailblazer for new techniques that are key to advances in medicine and science. For example, in September 2010, it opened the world’s first Neurosurgical Simulation Centre, a technological innovation that will revolutionize how brain surgery is planned and how future neurosurgeons will be trained (see box: Virtual brain surgery).

Dr. Brenda Milner, one of the most influential neuroscientists of our times, started working with Dr. Penfield and his epilepsy surgical patients in the early 1950s. Six decades later she continues her research at the Neuro. Her work with a patient known as H.M., who suffered severe memory impairment following brain surgery to address his severe epilepsy seizures, laid the foundations of cognitive neuroscience. In remarks made at the time of her induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, Dr. Milner said it was a privilege to have been connected with the Neuro, “a research institute doing basic science embedded literally in a hospital.” This, of course, was precisely Dr. Penfield’s
dream. End

Wilder Penfield at NRC

Dr. Penfield played an active role at NRC during his career. He served as member of the NRC Council — an appointed body that governs the organization — from 1947 to 1953, taking a direct interest in programs and operations. His tenure was an important period in the development of the NRC Medical Research Division, which later spun-off and evolved into the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. And in 1950, NRC established the “consolidated grants” for medical research to help Canadian institutions encourage collaboration among researchers. One of the first recipients of these grants was the Montreal Neurological Institute.

To learn more about Dr. Penfield:

Wilder Penfield, No Man Alone: A Neurosurgeon’s Life (Little, Brown & Co., 1977)
Wilder Penfield, The Second Career (Little, Brown & Co., 1963)