The Strange, Sad History Of The Lobotomy

Icepicks

Orbitoclast, used in transorbital lobotomy. Photo: John Kloepper, Central States Hospital, Milledgeville, GA (CC)

A truly informative article from Annalee Newitz on io9:

If you thought that scene in Sucker Punch where the doctor gave lobotomies with an ice pick was artistic exaggeration — well, it wasn’t. That’s exactly how Walter Freeman, a popularizer of lobotomies in the 1940s, performed thousands of operations.

In the mid-twentieth century, the lobotomy was such a popular “cure” for mental illness that Freeman’s former research partner António Egas Moniz was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his role in perfecting the operation. Moniz and Freeman had a falling out after Freeman started using an ice pick-shaped instrument to perform up to 25 lobotomies a day, without anaesthesia, while reporters looked on.

Freeman’s crazy antics didn’t scare off potential patients, though: John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary got a lobotomy from Freeman, which left her a vegetable for the rest of her life. And she was one of many people whose “cure” was more like zombification than freedom from mental anguish.

How did the lobotomy ever become accepted medical practice? And why are people still getting them today, under the less-disturbing name “lobectomy”?

For more information, see original article.

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  • chinagreenelvis

    This article raises more questions than it answers. Plus, it proposes to turn you off to the idea of lobotomies by basically saying, “Sure, the patients mostly wind up calmer and happier, but they SLICE UP YOUR BRAIN! WITH AN ICEPICK!” Therefore it must be bad, right?

    Simply put? It’s not an article worth its content. The only good thing about it is that it makes me want to read more about the subject, to find out what is really going on here.

  • chinagreenelvis

    This article raises more questions than it answers. Plus, it proposes to turn you off to the idea of lobotomies by basically saying, “Sure, the patients mostly wind up calmer and happier, but they SLICE UP YOUR BRAIN! WITH AN ICEPICK!” Therefore it must be bad, right?

    Simply put? It’s not an article worth its content. The only good thing about it is that it makes me want to read more about the subject, to find out what is really going on here.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NLNM6ME2Y4ZAQLETRPARLMGL5E Modemac

    It’s worth mentioning that anti-psychiatry organizations, especially Scientology and its “Citizens Commission on Human Rights,” long ago embraced the ice pick lobotomy as a prime example (along with electric shock therapy) of the kind of torture supposedly practiced by psychiatrists, even today. If you’re fortunate enough to come across their travelling museum exhibit “Psychiatry: An Industry Of Death,” you simply must go and take a look, if for no other reason than to see an outrageous fantasy in which thousands evil masked psychiatrists, across the country and around the world, stick ice picks into the eye sockets of innocent people. More commentary, if I may: http://www.modemac.com/wiki/Citizens_Commission_on_Human_Rights

    • DeepCough

      I’m willing to grant that Scientology’s bias toward psychiatry comes off as irrational (dare I say, psychotic), but when you read about procedures like lobotomy and Electroconvulsive Therapy, you can’t help but conclude that psychiatrists, when it comes to curing disease, are just plain retarded.

      • Guest4567

        Agreed. I’m not a scientologist, nor do I know any, but I’m willing to wager that their revolt against psychiatry is because, for the most part, it’s a pseudo-science set up to sell pharmaceuticals. Of course what comes to mind is the TC rant against ADD/ADHD and anti-depressant medication, which at first, I admit, I was appalled at how against medication he seemed to be. However, down the road, I realized it wasn’t just the medication he was harping over, but the diagnosis to begin with. Of course, I’m not saying all people with diagnosed psychiatric disorders were scammed, but it definitely merits an investigation. It reminds me of “Creative Personality Disorder,” (may be called something similar) in which psychs would diagnose other psychs they couldn’t agree with, such as Freud and the like. I suppose we can only hope for higher medical standards altogether.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NLNM6ME2Y4ZAQLETRPARLMGL5E Modemac

    It’s worth mentioning that anti-psychiatry organizations, especially Scientology and its “Citizens Commission on Human Rights,” long ago embraced the ice pick lobotomy as a prime example (along with electric shock therapy) of the kinds of torture supposedly practiced by psychiatrists, even today. If you’re fortunate enough to come across their travelling museum exhibit “Psychiatry: An Industry Of Death,” you simply must go and take a look, if for no other reason than to see an outrageous fantasy in which thousands evil masked psychiatrists, across the country and around the world, stick ice picks into the eye socks of innocent people. More commentary, if I may: http://www.modemac.com/wiki/Citizens_Commission_on_Human_Rights

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Not that I’m defending lobotamies, but equating them to lobectomies is a bit of a stretch. Lobectomies from what I know of are used as a last (and I mean LAST) resort for treatment of epilepsy usually. Sure, in some real extreme cases they have been known to take out a whole lobe, but usually they localize the focus of the seizures and take that relatively small part out. Because of the plasticity of the brain, this rarely has large side effects, and they are usually recovered from. The worst part though, is that it is a ridiculously invasive surgery, but it does tend to get rid of the epilepsy.

    A labotomy however has traditionally been as you said: an icepick in the forehead and swirling it around, scrambling up the frontal cortex. Obviously destroying the entire frontal cortex is going to create zombies.

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Not that I’m defending lobotamies, but equating them to lobectomies is a bit of a stretch. Lobectomies from what I know of are used as a last resort for treatment of epilepsy usually. Sure, in some real extreme cases they have been known to take out a whole lobe, but usually they localize the focus of the seizures and take that relatively small part out. Because of the plasticity of the brain, this rarely has large side effects, and they are usually recovered from. The worst part though, is that it is a ridiculously invasive surgery, but it does tend to get rid of the epilepsy.

    A labotomy however has traditionally been as you said: an icepick in the forehead and swirling it around, scrambling up the frontal cortex. Obviously destroying the entire frontal cortex is going to create zombies.

  • DeepCough

    I’m willing to grant that Scientology’s bias toward psychiatry comes off as irrational (dare I say, psychotic), but when you read about procedures like lobotomy and Electroconvulsive Therapy, you can’t help but conclude that psychiatrists, when it comes to curing disease, are just plain retarded.

  • Guest4567

    Agreed. I’m not a scientologist, nor do I know any, but I’m willing to wager that their revolt against psychiatry is because, for the most part, it’s a pseudo-science set up to sell pharmaceuticals. Of course what comes to mind is the TC rant against ADD/ADHD and anti-depressant medication, which at first, I admit, I was appalled at how against medication he seemed to be. However, down the road, I realized it wasn’t just the medication he was harping over, but the diagnosis to begin with. Of course, I’m not saying all people with diagnosed psychiatric disorders were scammed, but it definitely merits an investigation. It reminds me of “Creative Personality Disorder,” (may be called something similar) in which psychs would diagnose other psychs they couldn’t agree with, such as Freud and the like. I suppose we can only hope for higher medical standards altogether.

  • WhiteRose

    Rosemary was the wild horse from what I have read, basically it was a conduct disorder but when you are a Kennedy you must behave well unless you are a boy…. Psychology has come a long way but before you go getting your brain jolted maybe try something that won’t ruin your memory. I think a lot of the medications are a joke and doctors want a quick fix to feel like they are helpful ie the placebo effect.

  • WhiteRose

    Rosemary was the wild horse from what I have read, basically it was a conduct disorder but when you are a Kennedy you must behave well unless you are a boy…. Psychology has come a long way but before you go getting your brain jolted maybe try something that won’t ruin your memory. I think a lot of the medications are a joke and doctors want a quick fix to feel like they are helpful ie the placebo effect.

  • guest

    In 2008 I was sent to the hospital for psychosis.  I left as a shell of a human being, the epitome of zombification.   I found the right doctor and immediately felt better.  I got well enough to work and go to school.  Now I’m on one pill and am passing college courses while working.  Anyway, that whole myth that all of us mentally ill are med zombies isn’t completely true.  Yes, I was essentially useless for about a year, but right now I am more functional than I have been my whole life.  I have friends who have had a similar situation.  It is more about finding a good doctor and taking care of yourself. 

  • guest

    In 2008 I was sent to the hospital for psychosis.  I left as a shell of a human being, the epitome of zombification.   I found the right doctor and immediately felt better.  I got well enough to work and go to school.  Now I’m on one pill and am passing college courses while working.  Anyway, that whole myth that all of us mentally ill are med zombies isn’t completely true.  Yes, I was essentially useless for about a year, but right now I am more functional than I have been my whole life.  I have friends who have had a similar situation.  It is more about finding a good doctor and taking care of yourself. 

  • Alienchow

    Scientology and psychiatry hate each other because they are both cult competing for your money.

  • Alienchow

    Scientology and psychiatry hate each other because they are both cult competing for your money.