Wilder Penfield Biography

Photo of Wilder Penfield brain surgeon

Dr. Wilder Penfield

Wilder Penfield (1891 – 1976) was a famous brain surgeon and researcher whose pioneering work laid the foundation for Dr. Eric Berne’s theories of Transactional Analysis.

Penfield was born in Spokane, Washington, and spent much of his youth in Hudson, Wisconsin. When he was 13, in 1904, his mother learned of the newly established Rhodes Scholarship. “This is just the thing for you,” he recalled his mother saying with great confidence. He had to become an all-round scholar athlete. “The fact that my mind was really that of a plodder, and that my gangling body was slow and awkward, would be, it seemed, no obstacle whatever.” But he accepted the challenge of this ambition, and preparing himself shaped the years to come.

Penfield went to Princeton University, not least because it was in the small state of New Jersey, and Rhodes Scholarships were awarded on a state by state basis. While there he decided to pursue medicine — the profession of his grandfather and estranged father — because it seemed the most direct way to “make the world a better place in which to live.” Penfield looked forward to beginning his medical education at Oxford, but — despite his having been football tackle, baseball manager, class president and, according to his classmates, “the most respected” and “best all-round man” — he lost out for the Rhodes Scholarship from New Jersey to an “excellent fellow” from Rutgers. Instead, he devoted the year after graduation to earning money for his medical education by coaching the Princeton freshman football team and then teaching at the Galahad School. In the middle of the year, he received word that a Rhodes Scholarship for the following year had been awarded him, and he was accepted for admission to Merton College, which granted him special permission to defer his entrance until the end of the autumn of 1914 so that he might fulfill an agreement to coach the Princeton varsity football team.

At Oxford, he was deeply influenced by Charles Sherrington, “in his heyday, the world’s foremost neurophysiologist,” who made him realize that in the nervous system was “the unexplored field — the undiscovered country in which the mystery of the mind of man might some day be explained.” He was also strongly affected by Sir William Osler, Canadian-born Regius Professor of Medicine (“a hero to the rising generation of medical men”) at whose home he convalesced in 1916 after a German torpedo blew up the ship on which he was crossing the English channel to serve in a Red Cross hospital in France.

After two years at Oxford, he entered the Johns Hopkins Medical School where he received his M.D. in 1918. The following year he was surgical intern at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, serving an apprenticeship under brain surgeon Harvey Cushing. But the memory of the “undiscovered country” he had glimpsed through Sherrington’s lectures continued to intrigue him. He accordingly returned to Oxford for the third and final year of his Rhodes Scholarship as a graduate student in neurophysiology under Sherrington and followed that with a year as a research fellow in neurology at the National Hospital in London.

Returning to the United States in 1921, he rejected a lucrative position as a surgeon at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit — because it would have afforded him no opportunity for research — and accepted a post as associate in surgery at Columbia University and Presbyterian Hospital. There he developed his surgical techniques under Allen O. Whipple, Princeton ’04, and organized and pursued research in a laboratory of neurocytology.

Photo of Dr. Wilder Penfield bran surgeon and researcher

Classic Portrait of Dr. Wilder Penfield

During his postgraduate years in Oxford and London, Penfield had turned from experimental neurophysiology toward neurosurgery because he believed that, since the neurosurgeon could lay bare the living human brain, he should be able to study and influence the brain’s physiological activity and thus become “a neurologist-in-action.” As he came to realize that he could not carry out an effective approach to knowledge of the human brain and make use of that knowledge all by himself, he began to dream of organizing an institute where neurologists, neurosurgeons, and neuropathologists would work together with the kind of team work he had learned as football player and coach. Thinking he might be better able to realize this dream in Montreal, Canada, he joined the medical faculty of McGill University in 1928 and became at the same time neurosurgeon at the Royal Victoria and Montreal General Hospitals.

A few months after his arrival in Montreal, Penfield was called upon to remove a tumor from the brain of his sister Ruth. After finding that the tumor was malignant and far advanced, he performed a more radical operation than most neurosurgeons would have dared to attempt, but could not safely remove all of the malignant cells. Although the operation made it possible for his sister to enjoy a normal life again, the symptoms eventually returned and she died three years later.

The difficulties of his sister’s case spurred him to make his first effort to realize his dream of an endowed neurological institute for “investigation of the brain and mind as a way to human betterment.” His application to the Rockefeller Foundation resulted in a grant of $1,232,000 and the opening in 1934 of the Montreal Institute of Neurology, whose fame in neurological research and treatment attracted observers and graduate students, as well as patients, from all over the world.

In treating 1,132 patients during Penfield’s directorship, the Institute greatly improved the techniques of brain surgery and added materially to neurological knowledge. Penfield himself perfected the surgical operation for severe epilepsy and — by observing directly the living brain and mapping out its responses to electrical stimulation in the course of bringing therapeutic relief to conscious patients under local anesthesia — cataloged a great body of information about the physiology of the brain and recorded observations “of classical importance” on the speech-cortex and the interpretative-cortex. His “distinguished contributions,” his successor, William Feindel, said, were “recognized as unique by his neurosurgical and scientific colleagues.” The eminent British neurologist Nobel Laureate Edgar Douglas Adrian described Penfield as “a skilled neurosurgeon, a distinguished scientist, and a clear and engaging writer” with qualities of leadership that attracted “devoted colleagues,” but that “his first concern” was always the patient who needed “his surgical skill.”

Honors were bestowed on Penfield by societies, universities, and governments in North America, Europe, and Asia. President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and of the American Neurological Association, he was a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of London and twenty-five other scientific and professional organizations and a recipient of honorary degrees from as many universities, among them Princeton, Oxford, McGill, and Montreal. He was also awarded half a dozen prizes here and abroad and was the first recipient of the $50,000 Royal Bank Centennial Award. Twice decorated by Canada, he was also awarded the United States Medal of Freedom, crosses of the French Legion of Honor and the Greek Legion of George I — and the British Order of Merit, which is conferred on only twenty-four living persons.

Penfield retired from the McGill medical faculty in 1954, but he continued to serve as director of the Neurological Institute and to lecture frequently. He visited Princeton in 1956 to deliver the Vanuxem lectures, later published by Princeton University Press as Speech and Brain Mechanisms. He also traveled to Russia, India, and China in successive years as an invited lecturer before scientific groups. At the same time, he began a second career, as he completely rewrote his late mother’s novel, Story of Sari (based on a Biblical tale), which was published under the title No Other Gods.

On his retirement as director of the Neurological Institute in 1960, he intensified work on his second career in line with his belief that “rest, with nothing else, results in rust.” That same year he published The Torch, a biographical novel about Hippocrates. Three years later, at age seventy-two, he brought out The Second Career, a collection of essays and addresses reflecting his myriad interests and encouraging others to use retirement for the development of a new career.

In 1967, Penfield produced two more books: The Difficult Art of Giving, a biography of Alan Gregg, director of the medical sciences division of the Rockefeller Foundation, who had engineered the grant that had made the Montreal Neurological Institute possible, and Man and His Family, which grew out of another facet of his second career — his presidency of the Vanier Institute of the Family, which he helped found “to promote and guide education in the home — man’s first ~classroom.”

In 1974, when he was eighty-three, he completed and dedicated to Sir Charles Sherrington The Mystery of the Mind, an account for laymen of his investigation of the brain for almost forty years, published by Princeton University Press in 1975.

Three weeks before his death at the age of eighty-five on April 5, 1976, Penfield completed the draft of his autobiography, No Man Alone, a phrase repeated frequently in the book to underline his emphasis on the team approach to neurological research and treatment. Published in 1977, his final work was dedicated “with affection and gratitude” to the memory of his mother who had helped make it possible for him “to see things as they were” by preserving, editing, and typing the letters he had written her almost every week from 1909, when he entered Princeton, until her death in 1935.

Wilder Penfield and Eric Berne

Penfield’s research and findings impacted Dr. Eric Berne in his development of Transactional Analysis. For the full impact of Penfield on Eric Berne, see the description of Transactional Analysis.