Pre-Teenage Lobotomy


The LA Times today offers a decent, but probably too short, account (reg. req.) of the rise and fall of the lobotomy, in the context of one 55-year-old survivor who was forced into one by his parents at age 12. The key to why psychiatric professionals loved destroying people's prefrontal cortexes (often with ice picks shoved through eye sockets–less messy that way) can be found in this excerpt from the story:

"We as a profession had one generation of humility after the era of lobotomy, but it's gone," said Jeffrey Schwartz, a research psychiatrist at UCLA. "We're now back to a point where the elite of our society believe that the most sophisticated way to treat mental illness is with drugs, magnetic fields, a knife or radiation beam. It's especially important that we hear the rest of the lobotomy story from people who were there."

To fathom why lobotomy was once widely accepted, an understanding of the state of mental healthcare half a century ago is required. Overwhelmed by sheer numbers, many mental institutions in the U.S. were chaotic warehouses. ….

Some top psychiatrists and neurosurgeons began performing lobotomies in the late 1930s and found that their patients emerged calmer and easier to manage. Many were able to return home. Soon, news accounts reported that doctors had devised a "surgical cure" for mental illness. By the mid-1940s, lobotomy was viewed as the most advanced treatment psychiatry could offer for severe mental illness. In 1949, [lobotomy inventor Egas] Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine.

"In the context of that time, control of behavior became paramount, and any treatment that achieved that control was seen as therapeutic," said Joel Braslow, a UCLA psychiatrist who has written a history of the era, "Mental Ills and Bodily Cures."

"The illness was being defined by the physician, and the outcome ? whether it succeeded or failed ? was also defined by the physician."

A book review I did for Reason in our May 2002 issue on Robert Whitaker's Mad in America, a history of psychiatric abuses in America covering lobotomies and various horrors that both preceded and followed them, can be found here. A Web site dedicated to stories of victims of psychosurgery is here.