Lobotomies for everyone.

I guess we’ve all already heard a few stories about mad doctors conducting lobotomies in some old asylums. What I wonder is: were the lobotomies really effective?

Lobotomy is a neurosurgical operation that involves severing connections in the brain’s prefrontal lobe and has always been a controversial procedure, but was widely performed for more than two decades as treatment for schizophrenia, manic depression and bipolar disorder – among other mental illnesses. Today, the lobotomy is seen as an embarrassing failure of recent psychiatry, but during the early 1940s and into the 1950s it was a very respected procedure. It was first developed by Egas Moniz, a Portuguese doctor who used it to treat schizophrenia and found patients were more manageable afterward and believe it or not, in 1949 Moniz actually won a Nobel Prize for his invention of the procedure. Over time, another doctor named Walter Freeman developed it into the quick, behind-the-eyeballs method that we know today, called transorbital lobotomy.

Freeman first performed his transorbital lobotomy on Ellen Ionesco in 1946. She was described as “violently suicidal” by Angelene Forester, her daughter. After Ionesco’s lobotomy, Forester says that “it was just peace. It was like turning a coin over. That quick. So whatever he did, he did something right”. Not all patients were so happy with life after their lobotomies. Howard Dully was lobotomized by Freeman as a 12-year-old boy in 1960. He wasn’t mentally ill, his stepmother wanted to change his personality, which she described as disobedient. After the operation he stated: “the surgery damaged me in many ways. But it didn’t ‘fix’ me, or turn me into a robot. So my family put me into an institution” where he lived for 10 years.

One of Freeman’s most famous failures was on the sister of the president J.F. Kennedy.  In 1941, Rosemary Kennedy, described as a shy and easygoing child, but in her teenage years, she became rebellious and moody, was lobotomized at the age of 23. At the time, Freeman had only performed about 60 lobotomies and hadn’t yet created his transorbital technique, so he performed a prefrontal lobotomy. The operation did make Rosemary more manageable, because she was essentially left with the mental capacity of an infant, she couldn’t speak intelligibly or control some bodily functions so she was left into an institution where she spent the rest of her life.

The lobotomy in many cases either turned people into a vegetable or simply made them more docile, passive, and easy to control, often much less intelligent as well. Many of the doctors took this as being “good sign” because they didn’t know how else to treat severely mentally ill patients. Freeman would often complete the procedure in only 10 minutes, which seems a lot like an inadequate amount of time to perform something as delicate as brain surgery – he once performed 25 lobotomies in a single day. Freeman really wanted to use it on anyone who wanted one or wanted their family member to get one. He would give people lobotomies for migraines, depression, postpartum depression, behavioral problems, mild retardation, or really anything that he fancied would get him a chance to stick an ice pick in someone’s brain, there was even a time when the lobotomy was considered a cure for homosexuality.

We have always lived in a very weird world, allowing doctors “playing” with brains of people who were suffering and asking for help – “Calling it lunacy makes it easier to explain away the things we don’t understand.”



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