Wilder Graves Penfield, OM, CC, CMG, FRS (January 26, 1891 – April 5, 1976) was, ironically, the son of a failed physician. In 1899, his father’s failed medical practice forced his mother to take the children to live with her parents, becoming a writer, housekeeper, and Bible teacher in order to support her family.
In 1909, Wilder attended Princeton University, and became actively involved in both football and wrestling, as he earned a degree in philosophy. Though his initial direction had not been to follow in his father’s (albeit failed) footsteps, a desire to help people and a passion ignited by his college biology classes, inspired him to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. In 1914, he left America to attend the University of Oxford in England.
As a student, Wilder Penfield was assisted by our own Sir William Osler, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Medicine. Osler invited the young American to accompany him on medical consultations around England from one hospital to another, and through his association, Penfield came to regard medicine as “mankind’s most noble calling.”
Eager to help his fellow man, Penfield was also a volunteer for the Red Cross, and in 1916, the ship on which he was travelling for the Red Cross was blown up by a German torpedo in the English Channel. He was reported dead and his obituary was published in an American newspaper, but he in fact survived the attack, spending several weeks in recovery.
Over the course of the next several years, Wilder Penfield traveled extensively, working in Baltimore, Paris, Boston, London, New York, Madrid, and Montreal as he delved further into the study of neurology. While working as a member of the faculty at McGill University, Penfield was called upon to remove his sister’s brain tumor. After finding that the tumor was malignant and far advanced, Penfield performed a more radical operation than most neurosurgeons would have dared to attempt. Although the operation made it possible for his sister to enjoy a normal life again, he was unable to safely remove all of the malignant cells and she died three years later.
His sister’s case spurred Wilder Penfield to establish The Montreal Institute of Neurology, which opened in 1934 and became the world’s first international center for research and treatment related to diseases of the nervous system.