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Biographical entry Penfield, Wilder Graves (1891 - 1976)

CMG; OM 1953; Chevalier L├ęgion d'Honneur 1950; Hon FRCS 1943; MD Oxford 1918; FRCSC; FRSC; DCL Oxford 1953; CC 1967.

26 January 1891
Spokane, Washington
5 April 1976
Neurologist and Neurosurgeon


The story of Wilder Penfield gives the lie to those Admissions Deans who hold that athletic prowess, particularly on the rugger field, is not a quality to be sought after for entry to a medical school. This great surgeon, scientist and human being was Princeton's prize quarter-back and coach.

Wilder Penfield was born at Spokane, Washington, on 26 January 1891, the son of Dr Charles Samuel and Jean Jefferson. He was educated at local schools and at Princeton University (B Litt, 1913) where his fine record as a scholar and athlete won for him the Rhodes Scholarship for New Jersey. He delayed going up to Oxford in order to spend a year as full-time coach to the Princeton football team. He entered Merton College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1914 but his time there was interrupted by the first world war and he served with the American Red Cross Hospital no 2 in France before the United States entered the war. In 1916 he was severely wounded and returned to the United States to study medicine, securing a BA, a BSc and qualifying MD in 1918. He decided to become a surgeon and studied at Johns Hopkins University, then in London, spending a period with Sherrington at Oxford, at Harvard and Edinburgh Universities and in Germany and Spain.

From 1921 to 1928 he was attached to the research staff of the Presbyterian Hospital, New York, and remained on it after he was appointed assistant surgeon at the Neurological Institute, New York, in 1925. Two years later he moved to Columbia University as Associate Professor of Surgery and became Assistant Professor in 1928. In the same year he was offered, and accepted, the Professorship in Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University, a post he held until 1954.

Soon after his migration to Montreal in 1928 he was appointed chief neurosurgeon to both the Royal Victoria and the Montreal General Hospitals. By 1934, the high prestige which Penfield had acquired as a neurosurgeon was a large factor in animating the Rockefeller Foundation to provide a munificent endowment for the establishment of a Neurological Institute in Montreal and it was natural that Penfield should become its director. He planned the Institute as a purely Canadian one and he himself became a naturalised Canadian citizen. Recruiting a staff of able colleagues he soon made it one of the most efficient institutions of its type in the world and patients came from many countries outside North America.

Despite his heavy burden of work he found time to write many valuable textbooks. He held that most people had it within them to adopt a second career on retirement. He himself exemplified this by writing enchanting novels and biographies. The novel No other gods (1954) was based upon the story of Abraham and Sarah while they lived in Ur of the Chaldees and The torch (1961) a reconstruction of the life of Hippocrates. He was engaged in writing his own autobiography when he died.

During the second world war Penfield held the rank of Colonel in the Canadian Army's Medical Corps. After his retirement from the directorship of the Neurological Institute in 1954, he continued to act as a consultant and also became an assiduous propagandist for the improvement of Canadian education.

Wilder Penfield was a man of mark in any company. He was very charming, with a wide range of intellectual interests and was singularly modest about his own accomplishments and honours. In his later years he was rated the most distinguished citizen of Montreal, where he had a wide circle of friends and by the Canadian public he was counted the most valuable recruit their country had ever received from the United States. Many honours were bestowed on him from all over the world.

He married Helen Katherine (Kermott) in 1917 and the couple remained deeply attached all their lives. He kept until the end the superb figure that had made him Princeton's prize quarter-back. He died on 5 April 1976, survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 7 April 1976; Brit med J 1976, 1, 1079; Acta neurochir 1977, 36, 143-146].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England