Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield, Specialist in Epilepsy

An American citizen, Dr. Penfield came to Canada to delve into research on the brain.  Specializing in epilepsy and brain disorders, he founded the world-renowned Montreal Neurological Institute in 1934.

Wilder Graves Penfield was a destined to be a man of substance. Born in Spokane, Washington on January 25, 1891, his mother moved the family to Hudson, Wisconsin in 1891. He excelled in school; by the time he completed high school, he was head of his class, good at sports and well-liked. Attending Princeton University, Penfield enjoyed playing football along with his scholarly courses. While he received a degree in literature in 1913, medicine became his fascination. It wasn’t out of character for medicine to capture Penfield’s attention – his father and his grandfather were both physicians.

Receiving a Rhodes Scholarship in 1914, Penfield began studies in the medical sciences at Merton College in Oxford, UK, said Collections Canada. His interest in cranial research began while training under Professor Sir Charles Sherrington, a renowned neurophysiologist. Penfield gained valuable experience in the newer arts of neurophysiology and neurosurgery. Two years later, he enrolled at the Johns Hopkins Medical School to complete his Medical Doctorate, receiving the designation in 1918 as a skilled physician and surgeon. The New York Neurological Institute hired him as part of their team.

Dr. Penfield in Canada

In 1928, Dr. Penfield recognized “that to carry out effective research on the human brain, he would need to organize a facility where neurologists, neurosurgeons and neuropathologists could work together as a team.” Canada was the best place for such a collective. Dr. Penfield moved to Montreal, Quebec in 1928, taking posts with McGill University as head of the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, and with the Royal Victoria and the Montreal Hospitals as neurosurgeon.

Only months after moving to Montreal, Dr. Penfield’s sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He performed the surgery twice, but her cancer was advanced and not all cells could be removed. She made a recovery but died three years later. Dr. Penfield was re-inspired to make progress in his neurological work.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield

Neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield

Montreal Neurological Institute

With grants from the Government of Quebec, the City of Montreal, the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States, and private citizens, Dr. Penfield opened a facility in 1934 for treatment that included teaching and research on brain and nervous system disorders: the Montreal Neurological Institute.

The brain disorder of epilepsy became the focus of the doctor’s research. Dr. Penfield devised surgical methods to treat the most severe cases where seizures could not be controlled. The “Montreal Procedure” involved giving the patient a local anaesthetic so they would remain conscious during the surgery. Dr. Penfield “removed the skull cap to expose the brain tissue of the patient. He probed sections of the brain, asking the patient to describe what he or she was feeling,” stated Canadian Medicine: Doctors and Discoveries. The location of the brain causing seizure activity was identified and the tissue was removed. Also, “Penfield,” continued Canadian Medicine, “was able to map areas of the brain and their related functions.” The maps of sensory and motor functions are still of use in today’s medicine; his “homunculus”, a colourful character with enlarged body parts displaying effects of the brain, is also still popular. His surgeries were of great success for epilepsy sufferers, with more than half cured of seizure activity.

Prestigious Awards

For his life-changing accomplishments, Dr. Penfield received numerous awards including 14 honourary degrees, honourary memberships in prestigious societies, and in 1967, the Companion of the Order of Canada.

Married in Paris, France to his bride Helen in 1917, the Penfield family grew to include four children and later, many grandchildren. Dr. Penfield became a naturalized citizen of Canada in 1934. He died on April 5, 1976 at the well-lived age of 85. His research helped make Canada a leader in neurological care, and the legacy he began more than 74 years ago continues today.


The Historica minute on Dr. Penfield’s vital research into epilepsy treatment.

This article first appeared on  Copyright Susanna McLeod


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