Why Brain Surgeon Wilder Penfield was Called the "Greatest Living Canadian"

Penfield would have celebrated his 127th birthday today.


Google paid tribute to Wilder Penfield on Friday, celebrating what would have been his 127th birthday. As a surgeon, Penfield experimented in using electricity on brains while the patient was fully awake. His discovery that stimulating certain parts of the organ could cause the patient to recall memories was a breakthrough for neuroscience and helped advance epilepsy treatment.

Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1891, Penfield studied at Princeton University, before going to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. His growing interest in neurology led him to discover that brains could be safely exposed during surgery. In 1934, after receiving a $1.2 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he set up the Montreal Neurological Institute to explore this further.

The search engine paid tribute to Penfield through a commemorative doodle, with a special message alongside:

You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know why we’re celebrating Wilder Penfield’s 127th birthday today, but it doesn’t hurt! Penfield was once considered “the greatest living Canadian” for his trailblazing advancements in mapping the brain and brain surgery techniques to treat epilepsy.

Winder Penfield's portrait.

Wikimedia Commons

His experiments led to several advancements in the understanding of the brain. In some instances, he could make the patient see flashes of light, numb their thumb, and even recall a long lost childhood memory, all through electrical currents in the brain. These discoveries helped Penfield find damaged cells in an epileptic patient’s brain, isolating and removing the cause.

Penfield also became a famous name for science fiction fans. The Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? detailed a Penfield Mood Organ device, based on the neuroscientist’s experiments, that would change the user’s mood using a keypad.

Penfield received numerous awards during his lifetime. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as a foreign honorary member in 1950. In 1967 he received the Lister Medal for “his service to the advancement of medical and biological knowledge.” In 1967 he was awarded the Companion of the Order of Canada for his work as a “world-renowned neurosurgeon, who has instituted many new procedures in his field.” Penfield passed away nine years after receiving the order.

It’s not the first time Google has paid tribute to a famous public figure. The company has previously paid tribute to quantum physicist Max Born, biochemist Har Gobind Khorana, and the “father of montage” Sergei Eisenstein. Google has also occasionally celebrated inventions that changed the world, like the humble hole punch in November 2017.

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