Wilder Graves Penfield, (January 26, 1891 – April 5, 1976) was a Canadian neurosurgeon. During his life he was called “the greatest living Canadian”. He devoted much thinking to the functionings of the mind, and continued until his death to contemplate whether there was any scientific basis for the existence of the human soul.
After taking surgical apprenticeship under Harvey Cushing, he obtained a position at the Neurological Institute of New York, where he carried out his first solo operations against epilepsy. While in New York, he met David Rockefeller, who desired to endow an institute where Penfield could study the surgical treatment of epilepsy. However, academic politics among the New York neurologists prevented the establishment of this institute in New York; subsequently, Penfield was invited by Sir Vincent Meredith to Montreal in 1928. There, Penfield taught at McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital, becoming the city’s first neurosurgeon.
In 1934 he founded and became the first Director of McGill University’s world-famous Montreal Neurological Institute and the associated Montreal Neurological Hospital, which was established with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, 1934 is also the year he became a Canadian citizen. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1950. He retired in 1960 and turned his attention to writing, producing a novel as well as his autobiography, No Man Alone. (A later biography, Something Hidden, was written by his grandson, Jefferson Lewis.)
He was awarded the 1960 Lister Medal for his contributions to surgical science. The corresponding Lister Oration, given at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, was delivered on April 27, 1961, and was titled ‘Activation of the Record of Human Experience’. In 1967 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1994 he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Much of his archival material is housed at the Osler Library of McGill University.