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Table of Contents    
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 66  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 896-897

Wilder Penfield. The second career with other essays and addresses.

Department of Neurosurgery, Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Date of Web Publication15-May-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Sunil Pandya
Department of Neurosurgery, Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai, Maharashtra
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0028-3886.232307

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How to cite this article:
Pandya S. Wilder Penfield. The second career with other essays and addresses. Neurol India 2018;66:896-7

How to cite this URL:
Pandya S. Wilder Penfield. The second career with other essays and addresses. Neurol India [serial online] 2018 [cited 2023 Sep 27];66:896-7. Available from:

In a recent essay (Neurology India 2018;66:273-6) a reference was made to this book. You may find the following information on it stimulating enough to make you want to read the book yourself.

The essay that gives this book its title was the text of an address to the Canadian Club of Montreal delivered by Dr. Penfield in 1959, when he was 68 years old. He retired from the Montreal Neurological Institute the next year.

He demonstrated by example the fruitfulness of a second career.

Thoughts of his own second career appear to have crystallized in his mind much earlier for he had already started work on a series of books. Speech and brain mechanisms, based on the Vanuxem lectures delivered at Princeton in 1956, was published in 1959. The torch, featuring the life and times of Hippocrates, was published in 1960. The second career appeared in 1963 and No other gods followed four years later. In 1967, Dr. Penfield produced two books. The difficult art of giving was a biography of Dr. Alan Gregg and was his tribute to the director of the medical sciences division of the Rockefeller Foundation who had sanctioned the grant that had made the formation of the Montreal Neurological Institute possible. Man and his family drew upon his experience aspresident of the Vanier Institute of the Family, which he had founded 'to promote and guide education in the home – man's first classroom.' In 1974, when he was eighty-three, he completed and dedicated to Sir Charles Sherrington, The mystery of the mind, an account of his investigation of the brain over almost forty years, written for laymen and published by Princeton University Press in 1975.

His autobiography, No man alone was completed three weeks before his death.

Dr. Penfield held a firm belief that 'every year from birth to death has its purpose and should have its use… Understanding grows with the years, and with it perspective and wisdom. There is no limit to the uses of these things this side of the grave and we would do well to make them available to society…' He also emphasized that the belief that men and women of sixty have nothing more to contribute or are incapable of learning new skills, is wrong. These and other paralyzing psychological misconceptions have spawned the concept of pseudo-senility. As a preventive measure, Dr. Penfield advocated reorganization and renaming of the time of official retirement as the time for embarking on a new career – the last career, perhaps, but not necessarily a less enjoyable one nor one less useful to the society. He pointed out that the use of the brain in new tasks would, in fact, result in the reinforcement of poorly used nerve-cell connections in the brain and 'the old dog will increase his previous capacity by taking on a challenging new job… The best tonic for the brain is use; the worst treatment is discouragement and disuse.'

Chapter Four describes in fair detail, his foray into writing fictionalized versions of history that eventually resulted in the publication of No other gods (based on the Mesopotamian civilization) and later The torch (the life and work of Hippocrates).

It was inevitable that in the book under review, he paid his tribute to Sir William Osler, who, along with Lady Grace Osler, had befriended him when he made his way to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Chapter Six is dedicated to the man he had grown to worship mentally even before he met him. Dr. Penfield had studied the seven volumes of Osler and McCrae's Modern medicine – its theory and practice. In this essay, Dr. Penfield refers to himself as 'the student'. In doing so, he attempts to take away all references that could identify him (in much the same way as Cushing did when writing his two-volume Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Osler). He recounts how he was surprised to find his hero 'like other men', laughing, joking and playing practical jokes, displaying neither affectation nor false modesty. He describes how Sir William and Lady Grace took the student into their home. Dr. Penfield had joined in the war effort. The ship taking him to France was torpedoed. This resulted in a severely injured leg and Dr. Penfield was sent back to England. (Dr. Penfield succeeded in preserving his anonymity in this chapter but on page 169, in the chapter entitled A doctor's philosophy, he tells us that Dr. Osler is his hero, in part because of his experiences when '…I lived in his home in Oxford in April 1916, convalescing from a broken leg…') Penfield's first-person account of life in Open Arms – the name given to the Osler home at Norham Gardens in Oxford – is fascinating. His summation has oft been echoed: 'Osler was a simple man who never made his juniors conscious that they were in the presence of greatness.'

The origins of medicine in Greece form Chapter Ten. Here we learn about Aesculapius, his daughters Hygeia and Panacea and Hippocrates and about what Dr. and Mrs. Penfield learnt during their travels in the islands that lie to the east of the Greek mainland. We read about the temples raised to Aesculapius where the sick were treated and where serpents with healing power freely roamed the premises. We are also introduced to Galen and Soranus, Euryphon, the 'great leader of the Cnidian Asclepiads, a physician with special interest in the diseases of women…' and Ctesias. We learn of the library of Alexandria and of Herophilus and Erasistratus. The magnificent library was stocked with works from ancient Greece by Ptolemy II and it, in turn, served as a source for Arabic and other translations that survived in cities in Asia and Europe after the scrolls in Alexandria were destroyed by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. and Roman Emperor Aurelian around 270 A.D.

To recreate part of the atmosphere in ancient Greece, Penfield quotes a verse by Hippolytus, son of Theseus, as he lay mortally injured:

…Now pain sets painful foot upon my body

Let go, hold me no longer

But let Death come to heal me;

And if you pity me, help me to die quickly!

'What a plea for euthanasia!' commented Penfield.

We are also provided some humour from those bygone days as we read a verse from Plutus, a rowdy play by Aristophanes:

CARIO: …And then I did a thing will make you laugh

For as he neared me, by some dire mishap

My wind exploded like a thunderclap.

WIFE: I guess the god was awfully disgusted.

CARIO: No, but I also blushed a rosy red

And Panacea turned away her head

Holding her nose: my wind's not frank incense.

Here he also pays tribute to Socrates, 'the bravest and also the wisest and most upright' of Athenian citizens. He tells us of his diagnosis of hysteria in a centuries old sculpture in an Aesculapian temple.

Several pages in this chapter are devoted to Hippocrates and the corpus of writings named after him. Dr. Penfield terms Hippocrates 'a great man, a man who stood by the bedside of many a patient looking at the face of disease until he learned to predict the outcome… He swept away religious superstition and the unprovable assumptions of philosophy to record what he could see and hear and feel…' The final page (110) features many quotations from Hippocratic works.

Hippocrates, Osler, philosophy and religion are discussed further in Chapter Eleven, which has as its title and as its ending the question 'But where shall wisdom be found?'

Two chapters are devoted to speech and language but I shall pass over these to turn to Chapter Fourteen entitled The physiological basis of the mind. It starts with the wife of an Italian surgeon who pointed out to him that whenever she hung frogs' legs that were being prepared for dinner, over a copper wire, they seemed to come alive. The surgeon, Luigi Galvani, studied this phenomenon to discover electricity and nerve conduction. Dr. Penfield proceeds to consider neurophysiology, which had to explain the ancient concept of anima and then go on to try and understand the mind, consciousness and soul.

Discussing the attempts made in the process, Dr. Penfield quotes from Sherrington's inspired description of how nerve cells function, a portrayal at once scientific and poetic (page 139). Here it is that Sherrington used that immortal phrase 'an enchanted loom' to describe the brain. At a symposium in 1950, Sherrington, aged ninety-three, 'chuckled and remarked that two thousand years ago, Aristotle too had asked how the mind is attached to the body.' Dr. Penfield concluded in 1961 (when he wrote this essay): 'We have no basis on which to begin to understand the relation of mind to the brain. But the light of science will be brighter as the years pass, cast a wider circle, embrace things that lie beyond. I believe that understanding will come in time… not to us but to our successors.' These words ring true fifty-seven years later.

Chapter Nineteen extols The use of idleness and ends thus: 'Welcome the wind from the ocean of truth. Walk on its shores and be content to pick up the pebbles you find, listening there for the whisper of wisdom meant for every man.'

I end with Chapter Seventeen, which embodies A doctor's philosophy. In describing it, Dr. Penfield tells us of why each of us need our own heroes. 'They constitute a private possession, shut away from the world, in a hidden chamber of the mind. Your heroes go with you. They are your good spirits. At times, they seem to stand at the door of your conscience. They may warn but they never command.'

May this volume and the ideas germinated as you read it, enrich your present career and the period after you have laid down the heavy harness that you have carried for so long.


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