Is the toast burning?

I turned on my computer this morning and clicked on the Google webpage to do a search on aphasia, and, in particular, on Pierre Paul Broca, the celebrated neuroanatomist of the 1850s. To my irritation the Google logo was a cartoonish puzzle that I did not understand. There was a burning piece of toast, something that looked like a piece of a face, something that looked like a brain, and then a drawing of a man’s face. A bit annoyed for not being able to understand the logo’s message, I was about to continue with my intended search, when it suddenly dawned on me—the toast! The smell of burning toast! The man in the cartoon must be Wilder Penfield! Canada’s most famous neurosurgeon of the mid-1950s! Indeed, Google was celebrating Dr Wilder Penfield’s birthday on 26 January. He would have been 127 years old this year (1891–1976).

Immediately my mind went back to 1950, when I was a third-year pre-med student at McGill University. I recalled one of the pre-med society’s monthly meetings, which featured Dr Wilder Penfield, the neurosurgeon who mapped the brain for the treatment of epilepsy using what was called the Montreal procedure.

It all came back to me. The meeting room was packed; everyone was excited and astounded to be listening to Dr Penfield and watching his brief movie, which showed a fully conscious patient with his brain exposed, and Dr Penfield using a pencil-like electric probe to gently touch various areas of the brain. You could hear a pin drop in the room as the patient in the movie responded to Dr Penfield’s questions. At one point he said, “Now I hear music.” The “I smell burning toast” exclamation is attributed to another patient who was forewarned of oncoming epileptic seizures by this olfactory experience.

In the operating room, Dr Penfield’s exploring probe elicited that remark, leading him to the area of the brain responsible for the seizures. Dr Penfield’s exploratory procedures led to his discovery of sensory and motor areas of the brain, which enabled him to then draw maps showing the connections to various parts of the body.

Dr Wilder Penfield was born in Spokane, Washington. Some of his medical training took place in Oxford and at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He knew Sir William Osler. He was a Rhodes Scholar. In 1928 he was recruited by McGill University. The Rockefeller Foundation supported his idea of the Montreal Neurological Institute where scientist from various disciplines could work together. The institute opened in 1934, the year Dr Penfield became a Canadian citizen.

Dr Penfield, wherever you are, happy 127th birthday!
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading
Famous Canadian Physicians. Library and Archives Canada. Accessed 26 January 2018.

This posting has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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