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Bloggers of yore – Wilder Penfield was a 20th century blogger

by Eva Amsen

I’m reading Wilder Penfield’s autobiography, for work, and noticed that he was kind of a blogger.

He was a very good writer, and there is lots of detail in the book, even though he wrote about events decades after the fact. The detail comes from weekly letters to his mother. No matter where he was in the world, no matter how busy he was, he would take time to write his mom and tell her who he met and what he learned and discovered, and how he felt about his career. His mother typed up all the letters and Penfield later used her collection to write his biography.

Penfield obviously loved writing, and that is explicitly clear from this segment, which describes how he set out to write a book together with his collaborator and coworker William Cone.

“To my surprise, Bill Cone found writing difficult. He would turn, with evident relief, away from the half-written page and focus instead of the care of our patients. This he carried out with tireless enthusiasm. Or he applied himself to the perfecting of technique in laboratory and operating room and he did this with equal delight. In short, Cone was a doer and a reader, not a creative writer (…)”

Some people are not meant to write, and you will find lots of them in science. They know everything, they can do everything, and the lab would fall apart without them – but they are not good writers. These are the people who do not want to start a blog. Penfield clearly would have liked to, and, had he lived half a century later, he probably would have done just that.

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Richard P. Grant January 29, 2009 - 11:33 PM

bq. he was kind of a blogger…He was a very good writer

Eva Amsen January 30, 2009 - 1:03 AM

Heh. It was more the weekly letters that I thought made him a blogger, but other than that, the book is pretty good – especially for a _blogger_, you know.

Richard Wintle January 30, 2009 - 2:56 PM

I really need to read this autobiography… thanks for the tip. One thing that always makes me giggle when I visit the McGill campus is the street named “Avenue Docteur Penfield”, which is really a silly homonculous of a name. Of course, the anglophones just refer to it as “Doctor Penfield”, in a glorious example of Canadian pragmatism.
I am almost certainly off-topic now.

Eva Amsen January 30, 2009 - 4:30 PM

More Penfield quotes (I have to give the book back, so I’m jotting these down here for my own notes as much as for your pleasure)
bq. _”Bill Cone, it seemed, could not be made into an author, and I was beginning to realize that science is, in some ways, like football. Bill Cone was a tackle, a magnificent tackle. But, you could not make him into a quarterback, and he did not want to call the plays. Many of the authors of the_ Cytology _had done far better than anything I could have done in a field that was their own. I was learning that in science, as in football, the captain should not carry the ball himself in any play if others on his team could do it as well, or better.”_
(Ed. Explains title of book – “No Man Alone”)
bq. _”When I went to lunch with Mr. Mooney at the Lotus Club, I met in him an attorney who was altogether perfect in manner and dress. His large round eyes seemed to bulge with pleased importance and he used long words that smacked of the writing of many wills for the well-to-do. In spite of myself, a tune and a song began to run through my mind from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas: “I am the very model of a modern major general.””_
bq. _”So we took ourselves to Boston to the laboratory of Stanley Cobb – Gage, Chorobski, six monkeys and I. We must have seemed a motley crew, entering the Boston City Hospital! One of the monkeys eventually escaped and was lost in the ventilating system of that vast hospital for two days. Rumor had it at one time that he had been found in bed under treatment as an unusual Boston patient.”_
bq. _”Canadian weather (…) resembles a slightly spoiled beautiful girl with a good heart but a bad disposition. After being horrid for much too long a time, she suddenly turns right about and makes up for everything with so much charm that you vow again you always loved her!”_
(Ed. I read this while walking on an unshoveled sidewalk, mere minutes after slipping on snow, losing my balance, and spilling coffee in my bag. Canadian weather indeed. Or maybe I shouldn’t be walking, reading, and drinking coffee all at once. Or maybe people on Beverly Street should _shovel their sidewalks_)
Now read the “book”:http://www.amazon.com/No-Man-Alone-Surgeons-Life/dp/0316698393 .

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