Lobotomies:Strange Medical History

“Insert the spike in the eye and with two little hits the probe reaches the brain. Now swish. Give it a turn, pull out. Grab the gauze to stop the bleeding. Boom, the procedure is finished. The patient – cured.”

The doctor wipes the blood from his hands with a towel and like a magician gives it wave and bows to the astounded crowd. Another impressive show. The audience continues to clap, awed by the simplicity of the behavior correcting surgery that has revolutionized the nation. The lobotomy.

The nurses wheel the patient out of the room. The Doctor is left with his audience as they praise him as a godsend. A miracle worker!  They beg him to continue to cure. In the next room patient 1,659 begins to spasm. Blood begins too ooze from his eyes and from his nose. He jerks his head back forth then is still. A sigh escapes his cooling lips.


Dr. Walter Freeman performing lobotomy. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Bettman

Dr. Walter Freeman was on a mission to cure those whose modern-day 1940’s medicine could not and operated over 2,900 patients in hopes to cure their mental illness. He is known by historians as: The Lobotomist.

The modern lobotomy began with Egas Moniz in 1930. In order to help patients of mental illness Moniz would make an incision to their frontal lobe and inject alcohol into their brain in order to dissolve the tissue that was believed to be the source of their illness. The procedure would alter the patient’s personality making them more docile. His work was so revolutionary that he was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Although Freeman was not a licensed surgeon he began to dabble in modifying Moniz’s procedure and simplified it in order to perform it himself without the added expense and limitations of an operating room. It was modified significantly – a long metal rod with a sharpened edge resembling an ice pick was inserted under the eyelid and hammered into the brain with a surgical mallet.

Much later in his career he faced some scrutiny from colleagues about his practice. In his attempt to defend his procedure he followed up on his patients to record their progress. What he discovered was tragic. Most of his patients did not benefit from the surgery. Many were left paralyzed and others were left at childlike state.

One shutters to think that such a practice existed not too long ago. That patients without families had their brains scraped from their scull with a rod without legal consent. Freeman’s last lobotomy was in 1967; 49 years ago. The progress we have made since then is surreal, however, it makes one wonder about the things happening today. What pills, injections, or operations are our modern day lobotomy? It makes one wonder about the ambitious Walter Freemans of today and the vegetative patients of tomorrow. What atrocities we will one day read about fifty years from now? What a side effects will we develop?


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