delanceyplace.com 4/8/09 - lobotomies

In today's excerpt - lobotomy, a procedure whereby a sharp instrument such as an icepick was inserted through holes that were drilled in the skull or through the eyesocket above the eye to sever the connections between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain. Though thoroughly discredited by the 1970s, in the late 1930s through the 1950s lobotomies became an increasingly common treatment in America for mental illness:

"Doctors at the time were using many strange methods to treat patients who were depressed or mentally ill. Psychiatrists used electrotherapy, where they ran varying amounts of electricity through people's brains and bodies. They used hydrotherapy, where they gave their patients baths, douches, wet packs, steam, spritzers, and shots from hoses. ... A German psychiatrist developed something called the 'electric shower.' The patient was fitted into a helmet that gave his brain a 'shower' of electricity. ...

"These doctors weren't just doing experiments in dark basements somewhere, hidden from the American Medical Association, or from the public eye. They were the subjects of articles in magazines and newspapers that applauded their efforts [including] Time, Newsweek, Scientific American, Science Digest, and Reader's Digest. ...

"In 1935, visiting London, Dr. Walter Freeman witnessed a presentation on chimpanzees whose frontal lobes had been operated on. No one knew why exactly, but the monkeys all became passive and subdued after the operation. Another doctor attending the presentation was a Portuguese neurologist named Egas Moniz. He returned to Lisbon and in late 1935 began performing similar frontal lobe experiments on human beings. Moniz called the process 'psychosurgery' [it later became known as 'lobotomy.']

"Encouraged [by early experiments in this area] Freeman ... conducted many more prefrontal lobotomies. In that early period, Freeman's statistics said that out of his first 623 surgeries, 52 percent of the patients received 'good' results, 32 percent received 'fair' results, and 13 percent received 'poor' results. The remaining 3 percent died, but they weren't included in the 'poor' results category. Freeman would later get closer to the truth when he admitted that his fatality rate was almost 15 percent. ...

"Many of Freeman's patients were so damaged by the surgery that they needed to be taught how to eat and use the bathroom again. Some never recovered. One of Freeman's most famous patients was Rosemary Kennedy, sister of future president John F. Kennedy. Rosemary was born slightly retarded, but she lived an almost normal life until she was twenty-three. Then Freeman went to work on her. He performed a prefrontal lobotomy in 1941. Rosemary wound up in a Wisconsin mental hospital, where she stayed until her death, more than sixty years later. ...

"The news coverage was universally positive. ... The New York Times ran a story applauding Freeman's success rate, which their reporter put at 65 percent. ... Freeman's lobotomy might have gotten popular without the support of the press. America's hospitals were flooded with mental patients. By the late 1940s, there were more than a million mental cases in hospitals or asylums. More than 55 percent of all patients in American hospitals were mental cases. One study reported that the population of mental patients in American hospitals was growing by 80 percent a year.

"There was no real treatment for these people. They were often drugged, shackled, kept in straitjackets or locked in rubber rooms. Doctors were able to keep them from harming themselves or others, but they had a cure rate of about zero. Besides, keeping them in hospitals was expensive. Freeman offered a solution. His motto was, 'Lobotomy gets them home!' Directors of mental institutions heard that loud and clear. One of Freeman's colleagues said that a procedure that would send 10 percent of mental patients home would save the American taxpayer $1 million a day. Freeman claimed a success rate well above 10 percent. Most hospitals and institutions welcomed him and his lobotomy."

author: Howard Dully and Charles Fleming
title: My Lobotomy: A Memoir
publisher: Three Rivers Press
date: Copyright 2007 by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming
pages: 63-69