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The Heyday of the American Lobotomy Craze


Dr. Walter Freeman popularized the lobotomy in America

Performing a lobotomyFor more than 800 years, man had known that finding a way into the delicate brain cavity and cutting or poking at the liquid filled tissue, would produce a dramatic change in a person’s behavior and demeanor. It was commonly used to “drive out the devil”. Although archaic and seldom used, by 1935, the practice had returned to favor. A description in 1986 by Elliot Valentstein in the Great and Desperate Cures explains how he process was initiated.

“After drilling two or more holes in a patient’s skull, a surgeon inserted into a patient’s brain any of various instruments – some resembling an apple corer, a butter spreader, or an ice pick – and often, without being able to see what he was cutting, destroyed parts of he brain.”

Typical tools used for a lobotomyLobotomies require severing the nerve pathways in the lobes of the brain from the other areas. It was used with grossly disturbed persons suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other mental illnesses, typically on persons with violent or severely self destructive tendencies. Doctors were able to severe the nerves through two holes drilled into the patient’s head.

By the 1930’s, Portuguese neurologist Dr. Antonio Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz, brought the procedure back to vogue. Suffering from infections in his hand, Moniz was unable to perform surgery himself so he guided the efforts of an underling, resident doctor. Prefrontal brain matter was scooped out of the heads of more than twenty patients. With very little post operational study, Moniz published several articles on the “success” of the procedures. In 1949, Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Psychology or Medicine.

Now back in the public eye, the lobotomy procedure was picked up by American doctor Dr. Walter Freeman and popularized in America twenty years later. The rush to lobotomize patients began with more than 18,000 persons lobotomized in the United States by 1951. Prominent publications, including Time Magazine, Life Magazine, and the New York Times, printed success stories noting “the results were spectacular; about 30 percent of the lobotomized patients were able to return to their everyday productive lives. Surgeons now think no more of operations on the brain than they do of removing an appendix.”

Dr. Freeman went on to refine and improve the technique and introduced a new method of getting inside the head. Coming just under the eyelid and through the eye socket, Freeman used an ice pick (literally, the handle of the tool was etched with the words “Uline Ice Company”) and hammer to drive the spike into the front part of the brain. Holding the ice pick firmly by the handle, the spike was then twisted and wiggled in order to destroy “key” pieces of the brain and nerve endings.

By the 1960s, the method was considered barbaric and began to be replaced by drug therapy using antipsychotics and antidepressants and especially tranquillizers.

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