Short History of Lobotomy

Thanks Max


A Short History of Lobotomy - over 40,000 in US underwent psychosurgery by 1955

Preventive Psychiatry E-Newsletter # 260

ADVENTURES WITH AN ICE PICK: A Short History of Lobotomy,

A Not-So-Ancient Form of Psychosurgery

Dr. Walter Freeman, Barbiturate Addict and President of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in 1948, popularized the ice pick lobotomy that destroyed the brains and personalities of thousands of Americans, including famous Hollywood actress and political dissident Frances Farmer.


(full text at the link has interesting pictures)

ADVENTURES WITH AN ICE PICK: A Short History of Lobotomy [...snip...]

It took a few establish the various forms of lobotomy as everyday treatment for psychiatric patients. But by 1955 over 40,000 men, women and children in the United States alone had undergone psychosurgery which left large parts of their brains irreparably vandalized by doctors who didn't even need a formal qualification to practice the operation. The greatest advocate of psychosurgery was Walter Freeman. [...snip...]

Up until 1945, Freeman had never actually performed a lobotomy himself. He had always worked in tandem with Watts, and his surgical experience was limited to performing "spinal taps". What was still lacking, for Freeman, was a version of the operation that could be performed not just by neurosurgeons, but by anyone anywhere, in a few minutes: an off-the-peg, rapid technique, so that one could pop down to the local psychiatrist and get lobotomized in the lunch break. [...snip...]

Freeman had experienced a nervous breakdown, brought on by overwork. He had been particularly scared by this experience, and ever since had taken at least three capsules of Nembutal every night to guarantee sleep. Nembutal also gave him a dreamless sleep. Freeman did not like his dreams.

His depression had deepened his prejudice against personal introspection; he believed that there was nothing to be gained from self-examination except pessimism. He himself was a great believer in activity and exercise. He went off vigorously walking whenever possible, and often prescribed the same remedy for depressed patients. Trying to talk to them was nonsense. Something that had always been a perverse source of amusement to him was the number of psychoanalysts who committed suicide. He could not help pointing out with a certain amount of glee that no fewer than eight of Freud's associates killed themselves. [...snip...]

Walter Freeman performed his most famous transorbital lobotomy when he hammered his ice pick into the head of the movie star and radical political activist Frances Farmer. She had rebelled all her life against every form of authority.... no treatment yet devised seemed to work on her; she would not be tamed. But her communist sympathies and her aggression towards officialdom had offended too many people for them to give up without "curing" her.

Hither rode Walter Freeman, knight to the rescue, ice pick in one hand, hammer in the other. On an October morning, in front of an eager audience of staff, curious visiting psychiatrists, and photographers, female patients in wheelchairs were ranged before the great showman of psychosurgery. After giving a brief lecture to the assembled crowd on the wonders of the ice pick lobotomy --no more complex then a shot of penicillin, no scar, amazing potential for controlling society's misfits, viz, schizophrenics, homosexuals, communists, etc ... (Freeman was always quick to seize on new selling points for his art) -- he went to work. [...snip...]

First sold as an operation to be used as a last resort, the lobotomy had now become the first step to creating a manageable personality. Even problem children were being lobotomized. If everybody had their frontal lobes snipped at birth, there would bean end to sorrow in the world. By 1950, in his frenzy of activity, Freeman had crossed and re-crossed America 11 times on what he called his "head hunting" expeditions, promoting the ice pick, looking for new patients, checking up on his old ones. He found a partner, Dr. Jonathan Williams, to replace the departed Watts. Williams was often shocked at Freeman's cavalier use of the ice pick, wielded anywhere at any time, but for Freeman, the passionate prophet of psychosurgery, these were his golden years.

By the early 1950s, reservations about the effects of the lobotomy could be heard. Its use as a first, rather than a last, resort, by amateur surgeons who did not even bother to give the patient a preliminary psychiatric report, was rife. Postoperative infections, and simple fatalities were common; autopsies showed that large areas of brains, not selected nerves, were utterly destroyed. Astonishingly, there had still been no reliable sustained studies of the effects on patients, only Freeman's eternally optimistic data. Though some patients did continue to pursue their professional, and private lives after the operation .it was impossible to state that this was because of the surgery. It was, furthermore, impossible to judge "recovery" in many; they were often so different. The inert, emotionless, inhuman quality of many lobotomized, who were everywhere to be seen, began to revolt the public, though thousands still submitted relatives for the operation. As early as 1951, even the Soviet Union, where psychiatric abuse was rife, had stopped performing the lobotomy on ideological grounds: it produced unresponsive people who were fixed and unchangeable.

Lobotomy was finally seen for what it was: not a cure, but a way of managing patients. It was just another form of restraint, a mental strait jacket nailed permanently over the brain. It did not create new people; it subtracted from the old ones. It was an act of defeat, of frustration. [...snip...]



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