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Wilder Penfield as a student at Princeton, 1911. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon once called “the greatest living Canadian,” changed lives through some common sense, but experimental, brain surgery in the early 20th century.

Penfield is today’s Google Doodle, on what would have been his 127th birthday. The Doodle honors the surgeon’s biggest breakthrough: a procedure first done in the 1930s, which changed the life of a young epileptic woman.

Penfield’s “Montreal Procedure” was a way to shut off the seizures, right in the brain – and has since cured thousands of other cases of the disease.

“Brain surgery is a terrible profession,” Penfield reportedly said in the 1920s, seeming to presage his coming breakthroughs. “If I did not feel it will become different in my lifetime, I should hate it.”

A woman reported smelling burnt toast before each of her seizures, even though there was none around.

By 1934, Penfield had just founded the Montreal Neurological Institute while on faculty at McGill University. And he had a plan, based on common sense problem solving.

He put the woman under local anesthetic. But he kept her awake as he stimulated different parts of her brain with an electrode. At one particular region, the patient suddenly told the surgeon she again smelled burnt toast. Penfield removed a small piece of brain tissue from that exact spot. For the rest of her life, the woman never had a seizure.

The method was first formally published in a paper by Penfield and colleagues in 1951, and has since proven to be a major cure for some cases of epilepsy.

The same problem-solving mindset led Penfield to his historic career in medicine. Born in Washington state in 1891, he was raised for most of his childhood in Wisconsin. (His father, who was himself doctor, had his medical practice fail and found himself unable to support the family in the Pacific Northwest).

His parents pushed him toward the goal of a Rhodes Scholarship – which he eventually attained after a degree at Princeton University, where he was an accomplished student-athlete. Because of the scholarship, he trained at Oxford and later in Europe, before becoming the first neurosurgeon in Montreal.

The Montreal Procedure was just the beginning of some of his more far-reaching discoveries, including the electrical stimulation of various parts of the brain – and especially the physical basis for memory in the temporal lobes.

Consequently, he developed a map of the brain based on its sensory perception, called the homunculus (“miniature human”).

The Institute treated more than 1,100 patients during Penfield’s time as director. One of them was his sister Ruth, who had a brain tumor. Upon finding out it was far more malignant and advanced than had been previously diagnosed, he attempted a more-radical procedure than many would have attempted at that time. Ruth returned to a normal life for some time. But Penfield had not been able to safely remove all the cancerous cells, and the tumor returned and killed her three years after the operation, according to accounts.

Penfield retired from McGill’s faculty in 1954, and retired from the directorship of his Institute in 1960. His second career involved writing novels, biographies and essays. He died in 1976, at the age of 85.

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