Wilder Penfield’s struggle to save his sister

Ruth Wilder's brain, postmortemThe ever-pithy Mind Hacks recently posted a column from Dr. Vaughan Bell, on Wilder Penfield’s efforts to save his sister from a seizure-causing tumour.  The results were reported in a 1935 paper describing the effects of frontal lobe surgery.

Penfield obviously struggled with the decision to publish a clinical case study on his sister’s treatment, but eventually included it with two other cases in a 1935 article for the journal Brain, writing that “if she were alive, I am sure she would approve of such an analysis in the hope it would help others”.

As an academic case study, it is almost unique, as it weaves the medical language of neurology with fragments of memories and heart-felt tributes.

As a historical document, we learn as much about Ruth Wilder as neurosurgery itself. As a piece of science, it remains a skillful description of a rarely performed operation and an insightful commentary on the link between the frontal lobes and psychological function.

See also:

  • Feindel, W.  (1977).  Wilder Penfield (1891-1976): The man and his work.  Neurosurgery, 1(2), 93-100.
  • Feindel, W.  (1982).  The contributions of Wilder Penfield to the functional anatomy of the human brain.  Human Neurobiology, 1(4), 231-234.
  • Feindel, W.  (1986).  Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery for epilepsy–historical highlights.  International Anesthesiology Clinics, 24(3), 74-87.
  • Feindel, W.  (1991a).  Development of surgical therapy of epilepsy at the Montreal Neurological Institute.  Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, 18(4 Suppl), 549-553.
  • Feindel, W.  (1991b).  The Montreal Neurological Institute.  Journal of Neurosurgery, 75(5), 821-822.
  • Feindel, W.  (in press).  The physiologist and the neurosurgeon: the enduring influence of Charles Sherrington on the career of Wilder Penfield.  Brain.
  • Hebb, D.  (1977).  Wilder Penfield: his legacy to neurology.  The frontal lobe.  Canadian Medical Association Journal, 116(12), 1373-1374.
  • Preul, M. C. & Feindel, W.  (1991).  Origins of Wilder Penfield’s surgical technique.  The role of the “Cushing ritual” and influences from the European experience.  Journal of Neurosurgery, 75(5), 812-820.
  • Preul, M. C. & Feindel, W.  (2005).  “The art is long and the life is short”: the letters of Wilder Penfield and Harvey Cushing.  The Journal of Neurosurgery, 95(1), 148-161.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

One thought on “Wilder Penfield’s struggle to save his sister

  1. There is an interesting account of Penfield’s treatment of his sister in Something Hidden: A Biography of Wilder Penfield by Jefferson Lewis published in 1981 by Doubleday Canada.

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