the tragic history of lobotomies -- 4/08/20

Today's selection -- from The Body by Bill Bryson. The tragic history of lobotomies:

"In the 1880s, in a series of operations, a Swiss physician named Gottlieb Burckhardt surgically removed eighteen grams of brain from a disturbed woman, in the process turning her (in his own words) from 'a dangerous and excited demented person to a quiet demented one.' He tried the process on five more patients, but three died and two developed epilepsy, so he gave up. Fifty years later, in Portugal, a professor of neurology at the University of Lisbon, Egas Moniz, decided to try again and began experimentally cutting the frontal lobes of schizophrenics to see if that might quiet their troubled minds. It was the invention of the frontal lobotomy (though it was then often called a leukotomy, particularly in Britain).

"Moniz provided an almost perfect demonstration of how not to do science. He undertook operations without having any idea what damage they might do or what the outcomes would be. He conducted no preliminary experiments on animals. He didn't select his patients with particular care and didn't monitor outcomes closely afterward. He didn't actually perform any of the surgeries himself, but supervised his juniors -- though freely took credit for any successes. The practice did actually work up to a point. People with lobotomies generally became less violent and more tractable, but they also routinely suffered mas­sive, irreversible loss of personality. Despite the many shortcomings of the procedure and Moniz's lamentable clinical standards, he was feted around the world and in 1949 received the ultimate accolade of a Nobel Prize.

A drawing from Dr. Walter Freeman's book, Psychosurgery in the Treatment of
Mental Disorders and Intractable Pain, shows his icepick-inspired transorbital lobotomy instrument.

"In the United States, a doctor named Walter Jackson Freeman heard of Moniz's procedure and became his most enthusiastic acolyte. Over a period of almost forty years, Freeman traveled the country performing lobotomies on almost anyone brought before him. On one tour, he lobotomized 225 people in twelve days. Some of his patients were as young as four years old. He operated on people with phobias, on drunks picked up off the street, on people convicted of homosexual acts -- on anyone, in short with almost any kind of perceived mental or social aberration. Freeman's method was so swift and brutal that it made other doctors recoil. He inserted a standard household ice pick into the brain through the eye socket, tapping it through the skull bone with a hammer, then wriggled it vigorously to sever neural connections. Here is his breezy description of the procedure in a letter to his son:

I have been ... knocking them out with a shock and while they are under the "anesthetic" thrusting an ice pick up between the eyeball and the eyelid through the roof of the orbit actually into the frontal lobe of the brain and making the lateral cut by swinging the thing from side to side. I have done two patients on both sides and another on one side without running into any complications, except a very black eye in one case. There may be trouble later on but it seemed fairly easy, although definitely a disagreeable thing to watch.

"Indeed. The procedure was so crude that an experienced neu­rologist from New York University fainted while watching a Freeman operation. But it was quick; patients generally could go home within an hour. It was this quickness and simplicity that dazzled many in the medical community. Freeman was extraordinarily casual in his approach. He operated without gloves or a surgical mask, usually in street clothes. The method caused no scarring but also meant that he was operating blind without any certainty about which mental capacities he was destroying. Because ice picks were not designed for brain surgery, sometimes they would break off inside the patient's head and have to be surgically removed, if they didn't kill the patient first. Eventually, Freeman devised a specialized instrument for the procedure, but it was essentially just a more robust ice pick.

"What is perhaps most remarkable is that Freeman was a psychia­trist with no surgical certification, a fact that horrified many other physicians. About two-thirds of Freeman's subjects received no benefit from the procedure or were worse off. Two percent died. His most notorious failure was Rosemary Kennedy, sister of the future presi­dent. In 1941, she was twenty-three years old, a vivacious and attractive girl but headstrong and with a tendency to mood swings. She also had some learning difficulties, though these seem not to have been nearly as severe and disabling as has sometimes been reported. Her father, exasperated by her willfulness, had her lobotomized by Free­man without consulting his wife. The lobotomy essentially destroyed Rosemary. She spent the next sixty-four years in a care home in the Midwest, unable to speak, incontinent, and bereft of personality. Her loving mother did not visit her for twenty years.

"Gradually, as it became evident that Freeman and others like him were leaving trails of human wreckage behind them, the procedure fell out of fashion, especially with the development of effective psycho­active drugs. Freeman continued to perform lobotomies well into his seventies before finally retiring in 1967. But the effects that he and others left in their wake lasted for years. I can speak with some experi­ence here. In the early 1970s, I worked for two years at a psychiatric hospital outside London where one ward was occupied in large part by people who had been lobotomized in the 1940s and 1950s. They were, almost without exception, obedient, lifeless shells."



Bill Bryson


The Body




Copyright 2019 by Bill Bryson


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