Google doodle honors Montreal's first brain surgeon, Dr. Wilder Penfield

Dr. Penfield

Most Montrealers know the street name, but relatively few Montrealers know who Dr. Wilder Penfield was.

Friday's Google doodle marked the 127th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Penfield, who eventually became Montreal's first brain surgeon.

He was born in Spokane, Wash. in 1892, studied medicine at Princeton University, and then went to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. He practiced in New York City before moving to Montreal in 1928, teaching at McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital.

He founded the Montreal Neurological Institute in 1934, the same year he became a Canadian citizen.

"Dr. Penfield came to the practice of neurosurgery at a time where it was a major undertaking fraught with danger," said Dr. Richard Leblanc, a neurosurgeon who wrote a book on Penfield. "He brought an attitude toward surgery which made it very safe and made it possible to perform it the way we do today."

Dr. Leblanc told CJAD 800's Andrew Carter that Dr. Penfield's most enduring contribution to neurosurgery was mapping out the functions of various regions of the brain.

"He was able to identify that certain parts of the brain performed specific functions," he said. "For instance, [speaking] is made possible by a discreet, specific area of the brain, and Penfield was able to identify where that specific area is, so that if he had to do an operation, he would stay away from that area, and so the operation could be done much more safely."

The burnt toast represented in the Google doodle, meantime, is a reference to a procedure Dr. Penfield pioneered — one which was immortalized in a Canada Heritage Minute in the 1990s.

The video shows Dr. Penfield performing surgery on an epileptic woman at the Neuro in 1934. Before each of her seizures, she reported smelling burnt toast, even if there was no toast burning. The procedure depicted was what became known as the Montreal Procedure, a treatment for severe epilepsy where a patient is given a local anesthetic. While the patient is wide awake, neurosurgeons then try to identify the source of the seizures, and then destroy the nerve cells in the part of the brain where they originated.

Before the procedure, the brain would be stimulated with electrical probes and observed their responses.

Dr. Penfield received the Order of Canada in 1967, and died in Montreal in 1976. Two years after his death, the city of Montreal renamed McGregor St. in his honor.