He was born in Spokane, Washington, and studied at Princeton University before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied neuropathology under Sir Charles Scott Sherrington. He obtained his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. He spent several years training at Oxford (where he knew William Osler), and in Spain , Germany and New York.
Penfield was a groundbreaking researcher and highly original surgeon. With his colleague, Herbert Jasper, he treated patients with severe epilepsy by destroying nerve cells in the brain where the seizures originated. Before operating, he stimulated the brain with electrical probes while the patients were conscious on the operating table (under only local anesthesia), and observed their responses. In this way he could more accurately target the areas of the brain responsible, reducing the side-effects of the surgery.
This technique also allowed him to create maps of the sensory and motor cortices of the brain showing their connections to the various limbs and organs of the body. These maps are still used today, practically unaltered. Along with Herbert Jasper, he published this work in 1951 (2nd ed., 1954) as the landmark Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain. This work contributed a great deal to understanding the lateralization of brain function.
He also discovered that stimulation of the temporal lobes could lead to vivid recall of memories. His development of the neurosurgical technique that produced the less injurious meningo-cerebral scar became widely accepted in the field of neurosurgery, where the "Penfield dissector" is still in daily use.
During his life he was called "the greatest living Canadian." He devoted much thinking to the functionings of the mind, and continued until his death to contemplate whether there was any scientific basis for the existence of the human soul.
After taking surgical apprenticeship under Harvey Cushing, he obtained a position at the Neurological Institute of New York, where he carried out his first solo operations against epilepsy. While in New York, he met David Rockefeller, who desired to endow an institute where Penfield could study the surgical treatment of epilepsy. However, academic politics among the New York neurologists prevented the establishment of this institute in New York; subsequently, Penfield moved to Montreal in 1928. There, Penfield taught at McGill University and the Royal Victoria hospital, becoming the city's first neurosurgeon. In 1934 he became the first Director of McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute and the associated Montreal Neurological Hospital, which he helped establish with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. He retired in 1960 and turned his attention to writing, producing a novel as well as his autobiography, No Man Alone.
Avenue Docteur-Penfield, on the slope of Mount Royal in Montreal, was named in Penfield's honour on October 5, 1978. Part of this avenue borders McGill's campus.
Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain. 2nd edition. Jasper, H., and Penfield, W. Little, Brown and Co., 1954. ISBN 0316698334
The Torch. Penfield, W. Little, Brown and Co.; 1960. ISBN 1140758779. "A story of love, treachery, and the battle for truth in ancient Greece."
- Penfield, W. and Rasmussen, T. (1950) The Cerebral Cortex of Man: a Clinical Study of Localisation, Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown.
- Penfield, W. (1959) The interpretive cortex, Science 1'9:1719-25.
No Man Alone: A Surgeon's Life. Little, Brown and Co., 1977. ISBN 0316698393. Penfield's autobiography.
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