Wilder Penfield and Soviet neuroscience

Centre for the History of Medicine, Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, Moscow, Russia

Was it a mere coincidence that both the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Central Neurosurgery Institute in Moscow were established in the same year, 1934? My presentation deals with the relationships between Wilder Graves Penfield (1891-1976), a founder and a director of the Montreal Neurological Institute, and his Russian colleagues. It is based upon published accounts, archival sources (archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, The Burdenko Neurosurgery Institute) and witness accounts of Prof. Zemskaya from St. Petersburg.

The first Russian publication by Wilder Penfield (On the Mechanism of Headaches) appeared in 1936 in a special issue of Sovetskaya Khirurgija (Soviet Surgery) dedicated to Andrei Polenov (1971-1947), a founder of the Leningrad neurosurgical school. Penfield visited Soviet Russia for the first time in 1943 within the British-American-Canadian surgical mission and spent three weeks in Moscow and its vicinity. There he got to know Nikolai Burdenko (1876-1946), the Surgeon-in-Chief of the Red Army and a founder of the Central Neurosurgery Institute. The only detailed and informal obituary of Burdenko outside the USSR was written by Penfield.

His second visit to Soviet Russia in Fall 1955 was a fortnight lecture tour at neuroscience institutions in Moscow and Leningrad. Penfield’s outlook at Soviet life and neuroscience is sympathetic and sometimes naïve. In 1958 he was elected a foreign member of Academy of Sciences of USSR. His three major books on neuroscience were translated into Russian. It is telling that the Russian edition of Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain (Moscow, 1958) is dedicated to Ivan Pavlov.

During the Cold War era Penfield was one of a very few channels of communication between the neuroscience communities of the USSR and the West. In the 1950s two young Soviet neurosurgeons (Dr. Aleksandra Zemskaya from Leningrad and Dr. Yuri Savchenko from Omsk) spent several months at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Upon their return they introduced Penfield’s approaches to epilepsy surgery to their home institutions and became leading figures in this field. Penfield also corresponded with a director of the Burdenko Neurosurgery, Institute Boris Egorov (1892-1972).

In 1962 a Nobel Laureate in physics, Leo Landau (1908-1968), had a severe head injury in a traffic accident and was hospitalized at the Burdenko Neurosurgery Institute. Wilder Penfield was invited for a consultation. His notes in Landau’s case records provide us a glimpse of Penfield the clinician.

Penfield’s contacts with Russian neuroscientists and neurosurgeons might be viewed as an interesting example of knowledge transfer in the context of Soviet politics.

Session VII -- Special Lecture
Monday, 28 June 2004, 9:30 am

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada