With Dr. Wilder Penfield

April 19 1976


With Dr. Wilder Penfield

April 19 1976


With Dr. Wilder Penfield

In the foyer of the Montreal Neurological Institute is a life-size statue of a partially clad young woman. The French inscription in the base translates: “Nature revealing herself to Science.” That line embodies the lifelong quest of the late Wilder Penfield, an iron-willed humanitarian who founded the institute and became one of the world’s finest neurological pioneers. Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1891 to a frontier doctor father and a religious mother, Wilder Graves Penfield developed at an early age a diamond-hard will. When he was 13 his mother told him of the newly established Rhodes Scholarship which required “all-rounder” ability, including athletics. With a small build and no interest in athletics, he nevertheless won his varsity football letter at Princeton (where he was taking honors philosophy) and became a Rhodes Scholar. On vacation from medicine at Oxford, Penfield dressed casualties in France and was torpedoed on his way home across the English Channel. After six years of research under the financial wing of Mrs. Percy Rockefeller, in 1928 he became a neurosurgeon at Montreal’s Royal Victoria FHospital. The doors of his lifelong dream, the Montreal Neurological Institute, opened in 1934, the same year he became a Canadian citizen. It was here, tucked away under the mountain, that the “Chief,” as he became known to everyone, found the cause of and cure for epilepsy and, while electrically stimulating the temporal lobes, discovered both the location and extent of man’s memory. Returning from Russia during World War II, he visited the biblical city of Ur, home of became the setting for his first novel, No Other Gods, illustrating his deep belief that man's most important intellectual step was the brave search for an invisible god. Fie greatly admired Oppenheimer and his moral struggle to stop the use of the atomic bomb he had fathered. Penfield, too, believed that the use of man’s brain was at least as important as what was discovered about it—a conviction he expressed in his work as president of theVanier Instituteof the Family. The late Governor General was one of his closest friends and, as he conversed recently with writer Casey Baldwin, the Chief leaned on his proudest possession: a hardwood cane capped with a silver collar, which was given to him by George Vanier It was his last interview. A few days later he died.

Maclean’s: In the trial of Patricia Hearst her lawyer contended she had been completely brainwashed and her actions were beyond her control.

Penfield: I think that brainwashing is bunk. I’m quite clear about this. No man can be forced to think what he doesn’t want to think. Nothing that you do to the brain can influence the mind unless you want it

to. We know the Chinese seem to have excelled in what’s called brainwashing, but any man who doesn't want to believe can’t be forced against his will. So her lawyer’s contention is absolutely false. When she says she was helpless and her brain was altered beyond her power to influence it, I do not believe it. It was up to her and she could have kept her integrity just as the Christian pilgrims did in the time of Rome. Maclean’s: Well, the jury agrees with you. I suppose her lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, took the only line of defense possible.

Penfield: She is just a criminal and ought to get it in the neck. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the neck isn’t the right place to give it to them. I don’t know what you think about hanging. Maclean’s: I don’t think it’s a deterrent, but I have seen evidence to support both sides. Penfield: It seems to me that death is a deterrent for the worst of criminals. Anyway, they are a damn nuisance and they’d be out of the way.

Maclean’s: Speaking of criminals, some governments have engaged in some evil practices, using the tools of your trade, science. Suppose neurology makes great strides in thefuture in terms of things it’s possible to do with the mind, and some government maladaptsyour discoveries. Do neurologists face a crisis similar to that faced by the men who built the atomic bomb?

Penfield: No, there’s no such likelihood or danger in neurology. The mind is independent of the brain—at least that’s the most likely hypothesis. I’ve never become what’s called an all-out-and-out dualist because that goes on over into all sorts of things, but from a scientific point of view I think I can see clearly that the brain is only something that is conditioned, something that is carried about as you would carry a computer. The brain is a computer, and the most wonderful computer, of course, in existence. But it is computed by something that is outside itself—the mind.

Maclean’s: You make a distinction between the mind and the brain?

Penfield: Very definitely. All we are waiting for now is a physicist who will discover and describe for us the electrical energy that we know is in the brain, that runs the computer and sends billions of messages going back and forth in the computer all the time; tell us how it works. When the brain wakes up, the mind wakes up and immediately takes charge of certain areas. Therefore there must be a form of energy not yet discovered by the physicist, and I predict that when we get that, then we’ll understand how the mind receives its energy. Because it has energy. It has initiative. It can do things with the brain. It can open the files of memory, which are in the brain, just as they are in any computer. The computer is helpless, perfectly helpless, until an outside, conscious mind comes to it and programs it; then it becomes a functional thing. The same is true of the brain and the mind. The mind is the programmer from the very beginning; the mind is born with the brain. You see it in babies at the very beginning. You see some evidence of purpose. Whenever there’s individual purpose, the mind is exploring and directing the attention of the computer, and anytime it directs the attention of the computer, the object of his attention is being recorded, recorded in the brain.

Maclean’s: Dr. Penfield, can you recall the time, the first time, that you discovered that memory could be tapped?

Penfield: Well, I was operating in a little side room over in the Royal Victoria Hospital, and I had a woman that I was very much puzzled about, a woman who had epilepsy. I knew that the attacks of epilepsy were coming from some kind of electrical discharge in her temporal lobe, and so I tried to produce one of her usual attacks, and she said suddenly: “I feel just the way I did when my daughter was born.” I knew she was sincere—she wouldn’t try to pull my leg—but I didn’t understand. I didn’t even make a note of it. But that was the first time. The next time was about three years later: there was a girl who, in her epileptic attacks, used to have a regular little dream. So I stimulated, and it became perfectly obvious that this wasn’t a dream—this was a memoiy. Her brothers were involved in it, and they authenticated it. And eventually we found that by electrical stimulation you can set off the epileptic phenomenon that is at the basis of each seizure.

Maclean’s: Isn’t it rather ironic that a brilliant scientist likeyourself, having made discoveries like the one you just described, should have such an abiding faith in God? Penfield: Not at all; it’s the reasonable approach. I don’t know if you are familiar with Robert Oppenheimer, the man who was sacrificed by McCarthy. He was a great scientist and the father of the atomic bomb. He came to the same conclusion that I did, which is that if you have prepared yourself you will find that your life’s work is all planned for you. What the Creator had in mind when he laid his plan in the beginning. And the plan of the world has a way in it for every man who is willing to prepare himself to the maximum and work his hardest. Now that sounds like preordination, but it isn’t. It’s just coming to the truth. There is a plan for the betterment of this world, and everyone who is sincerely working in it is working toward the same end.

Maclean’s: You visited China in 1962. Comparing the spirit of capitalism with the spirit of Communism, which is closer to Christianity?

Penfield: I remember having a talk with my interpreter in China, and he asked me about our religion, and then I asked him about his. “Oh,” he said, “we have no religion. My mother used to eat the proper things in the morning and observe the Buddhist feasts and things, but we have no religion.” And I said: “You have a religion, and it’s one of the strongest religions I’ve ever heard of. Your religion is to improve the fate of the Chinese people.” He thought for a minute and said, “Yes, perhaps you’re right.” I think the application of Communism in China is a great deal closer to Christianity than our application of capitalism in Canada and the United States. When I go to China I see a highly moral place. I see great heaps of bicycles all stacked against each other without a single lock on them. Nobody ever steals. It’s true! It isn’t very long ago that China used to be a most thieving place. Communism in China is very close to the teachings of Christ, and morality has become a perfectly tremendous force—one which goes through the whole of their society and which changes the attitude of every citizen of every little village, and every farmer, and every farmer’s wife.

Maclean’s: To return to the temporal again, you have established neurologically why children up to age 10 or 11 learn a language easily while adults find it difficult. Penfield: Oh gosh, it’s so simple. Before I came to Montreal I took six months off,

and I went to the only man who had, up to that time, operated on epileptic patients, a man by the name of Otfrid Foerster who lived in Breslau—which was German at the time. We needed a maid and a friend told me about this woman called Fräulein Bergman. She came and she couldn’t speak a word of English, thank heavens: our four children, ages one to 10, quickly became fluent in German. Mrs. Penfield and I learned it the hard way, and we always spoke it badly. The evidence is clear that there is a mechanism within the brain that makes learning of language easy. But a change takes place about the age of eight, about the time teachers start to teach a second language, so they are defeated before they begin. The brain of the young child sets up two frames (or three, if they are hearing French, German and English) within the brain, and when they are hearing French they are building into the French frame. And it stays there,it’s never lost. When they’re hearing English they switch over, and when they hear a third language, switch over again. So the child who has heard languages at the time he ought to have heard them has a switch mechanism.

Maclean’s: But when Mr. Trudeau comes along and insists a 40-year-old civil servant become bilingual, it’s a whole different ball game.

Penfield: Well, he does the best he can. Maclean’s: What would you recommend to the Prime Minister regarding his language policy, then?

Penfield: That we develop a system of unilingual baby-sitters who, if trying to teach English to a French child, should speak no French themselves. There are other ways; you can trade children with your friends.

Maclean’s: There are a lot of Canadians who are upset about bilingual policy— Westerners, for instance. People from A Iberia are upset about having to learn French or even having it taught in the schools.

Penfield: Y es, and even more pernicious is the tradition that you must wait until one language is set before you start another. Now that is either political or religious junk, absolute junk. A French-Canadian mother wrote me and said she was worried about her children’s language. Her husband is English and that language was used at home all the time. I said, “Well, why don’t you do this: call upstairs French and downstairs English, and play the game yourself; talk French upstairs and English downstairs.” She wrote me a year later and said it worked marvelously. It was delightful with the children changing on the way downstairs.

Maclean’s: Does learning another language perhaps help the discipline of the mind?

Penfield: It produces a better brain. There isn’t any question but what the young man who comes to college who has heard two languages has a better brain than the average one who is unilingual. He will have a better future, too. He can learn other languages better. If you can just give the child a chance to start to make a frame for another language, you have altered his whole mechanism within the brain. He has the capacity to turn to any number of languages. I use the Jewish example. And I say the average Jewish man, who grew up learning Yiddish as well as some other language, is a little cleverer than his neighbor. And I could defend that in almost any country which wasn’t bilingual or multilingual. I could say, also, that the children, of missionaries who had been raised by a nurse who spoke Chinese to them, or Persian—it wouldn’t matter—would prove to be more intellectually active than others. Maclean’s: You have talked about the need for heroes. Would Mr. Trudeau rate as a candidate?

Penfield: Oh, yes, he’s one of my heroes; a leader, a real leader of new thought in the province of Quebec. There was a time when it could have gone one way or the other. Pierre Trudeau changed the province of Quebec’s attitude toward Canada. It might have had a much more antipathetic one than it has, and I think we have great things to thank him for.

Maclean’s: What’s happened to the socalled quiet revolution of the Sixties? Penfield: The quiet revolution has developed in the only way it could, which is a revolution in education. They had the problem of changing a whole classical way of teaching, which was ecclesiastical. If anybody had wanted to hold out and stand by the Church, it would have been a great step backward, but this was a new development in education and it seems to have come about as well as it could have. Maclean’s: Speaking of heroes, you have one unusual claim to immortality in, of all things, sports. As I heard the story, you, despite your size, still made the varsity football team at Princeton, and that season a play known as the Penfield Ricochet beat Dartmouth. What was the Penfield Ricochet? Penfield: Well, it’s a funny thing. I was a kicker, a pretty good dropkicker. That game was won by a kicked ball that rolled along the ground, struck its end on something, and jumped over the crossbar—believe it or not. But I didn’t kick it. It was a great big fellow named Dewitt who kicked it. It just jumped andjumped and jumped and—Bang!—over it went. So I didn’t have anything to do with it, but when I went up to Dartmouth to get a degree later, the [college] president talked about it, and I couldn’t deny it. But, although I’d done most of the kicking in the game, I wasn’t responsible for the ricochet. The things that make you famous are really funny. But athletics were very important in my life: I wanted to win a scholarship, and therefore I became a player on the football team. But when I got my letter, that was enough. For a moment I was very much involved in football, but from then on I went directly to Oxford and I never looked back. I’ve hardly seen a football game since. Maclean’s: What about sailing?

Penfield: Sailing? Yes, I’m a keen sailor. Until five years ago, when I began to get this weakness: I found when I would jump onto a sailboat my legs would give way. That’s almost the first indication I had that something was going wrong. I was out with Priscilla, my daughter, and she got into the boat, and I jumped in from the dock. Both legs gave way and I came crashing down and cut my shins. That was abnormal. Maclean’s: Is this a progressive thing? Is there anything that can be done for it? Penfield: They’ve taken out bits of muscle and found degeneration in it, and that’s as far as they can go.

Maclean’s: Well, you seem to get about quite well.

Penfield: I do, but I don’t.

Maclean’s: How would Wilder Graves Penfield describe Wilder Graves Penfield today?

Penfield: Now there are three Wilder Graves Penfields. How Leith, my grandson, would describe me would be very interesting. He’s the music critic on the [Toronto] Sun, and he’s a great fellow. I could describe him more easily than I can me. Maclean’s: Could you have a stab at it, describing you?

Penfield: No. Describe yourself? No. They did a bronze of me at the Neurological Institute and presented it the other day, and I think it was very well done. I have a hunch it is. But when I saw him [the likeness of himself] I didn’t know him. I never

see the man. When you’re really focused in doing your job, whatever it is, you never see yourself.

Maclean’s: It’s been 59 years since you married Helen Kermott. What do you value the most about your time with your wife? Penfield: I could never have done without her help and advice. She’s always believed in what I was doing. She always knew I could do it. She always warned me. I think she took me off my high horse. I think the help that a man gets from a good wife is like nothing else in the world. And that’s where our superiority over women comes in: we can have a good wife, they can’t. I’ve had one, and even now our companionship is the best thing I have left.

Maclean’s: There’s something else I would like to ask you. You’ve been a brilliant specialist, focusing on an area in which you felt you could do important work, but you still hadan open mind and it’s roamed a lot—politics, archaeology, religion, education. You’ve been interested in a great many things, and that’s not true of most specialists. They tend to get tunnel vision. Why have you been different?

Penfield: I never closed the windows of my mind. Never. But I kept my objective, and the work I had to do in the world, before me. I had seen another man who had an open mind in that same sense, William Osier, and perhaps that had some effect. He was not my hero as far as a scientist was concerned, but he was as a man, as a human being who lived his life and was interested in everything. He kept his dictionary and encyclopedia in the dining room, and he turned to it all the time. Well, I did that at the beginning. I suppose I was imitating the kind of life that he lived.

Maclean’s: The ashes of Sir William Osier are hidden behind the paneling in the McGill Library. Working in the library one night, you talked to the wall and asked Willie Osier to come back. The story and a subsequent rustling in the room were widely reported and spiritualists all over the world acclaimed you as a kindred soul.

Penfield: That was a great joke. I told the story a little too dramatically in an address at Trinity College School and there was a reporter from some Toronto newspaper—I only remember he was a popeyed, freshfaced young man—and after I was through he came to me and said: “Shall I say you did hear Sir William behind the paneling or you thought you did?” Oh my gosh, I thought, here’s trouble. “Oh no,” I said, “say I thought I did.” It was too late. The report was particularly popular in England, I gather, because I received fan mail particularly congratulating me on having made contact with the great master and being one of the chosen spiritualists. Maclean’s: I don’t know whether this is a fair question, but you have a malignant tumor. Have you refused chemotherapy on an ethical basis or a medical basis?

Penfield: I took radiotherapy instead because chemotherapy is uncomfortable, so I’m told, and I don’t like to be uncomfortable—and anyway, the sooner I can leave this world, the better, with all this weakness and all. I’d give anything to go. Maclean’s: Should the choice ever be given an individual?

Penfield: Yes, I think somehow one of the rights of human beings is to die with dignity. And the time may come when the medical profession can have the dignity and insight to help us out of this world. But otherwise we have to be patient. And you’ve got to be sure that your work in the world is over. No one should want to go before that. Anyway, I’ve finished the manuscript of No Man Alone [his autobiography], I sent off the last re-edited chaptersjust this last week, andl’m simply delighted, of course, that it has gone.'ÿ1