Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Wilder Graves Penfield
His studies in 1924 with the Madrid neurohistologist Pio del Rio-Hortega provided him with metallic staining techniques that yielded new information on the glia, the supporting cells of the nervous system.
Wilder Graves Penfield, neurosurgeon, scientist (b at Spokane, Wash 26 Jan 1891; d at Montréal 5 Apr 1976).
He was founder and first director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and established the "Montreal procedure" for the surgical treatment of epilepsy. Having obtained a BLitt from Princeton in 1913, Penfield attended Merton College, Oxford. There he was influenced by 2 great medical teachers, Sir William Osler, who became his lifelong hero, and the eminent neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington, who introduced him to experimental investigation of the nervous system.
After graduating with an MD from Johns Hopkins in 1918, he served as surgeon to the Presbyterian Hospital (affiliated with Columbia) and to the New York Neurological Institute 1921- 22
His studies in 1924 with the Madrid neurohistologist Pio del Rio-Hortega provided him with metallic staining techniques that yielded new information on the glia, the supporting cells of the nervous system. In 1928 he learned from the German surgeon Otfrid Foerster the method of excising brain scars to relieve focal epilepsy. That year he moved with his neurosurgical partner, William Vernon Cone, to work at Montréal's Royal Victoria Hospital, where they became associated with neurologist Colin K. Russel. In 1934, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the government of Québec, the city of Montréal and private donors, Penfield founded the Montreal Neurological Institute, which rapidly became an international centre for teaching, research and treatment related to diseases of the nervous system. He was its director until 1960.
In the last 15 years of his life Penfield enjoyed a second career as a writer of historical novels and medical biography. He devoted himself to public service, particularly in support of university education, and became first president of the Vanier Institute of the Family. He was widely known for promoting early second-language training. His writings from this period include The Mystery of the Mind (1975), summarizing his views on the mind/brain problem, and No Man Alone(1977), an autobiography of the years 1891-1934.
Penfield's most lasting legacy was the foundation and the establishment by endowment of the Montreal Neurological Institute. This neurological hospital integrated with a brain-research complex continues to provide a centre where both basic scientists and physicians study the brain; it has served as a model for similar units throughout the world. To Penfield the brain and the nervous system represented the most important unexplored field in the whole of science. "The problem of neurology," he wrote, "is to understand man himself." Among his honours, he received the Royal Bank Award.
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