In full swing of psychology and the optimism of scientific advances in the 20th century, a Portuguese doctor, Antonio Edgar Moniz, believed he had found the definitive remedy against psychiatric disorders: lobotomy . Nothing strange, if it weren’t for the fact that this technique consisted of trepanation from the skull to the brain.
However, what today seems like a real savagery acquired enormous popularity in the 1950s, and its creator received the Nobel Prize for Medicine. But, what was the lobotomy and what were the consequences?
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What is a lobotomy
Lobotomy is a surgical practice in the field of neuroscience that consists of perforating the skull at two points in order to reach the brain and section some parts of the frontal lobe. This revolutionary technique, emerged in the thirties of the last century, which sought to solve some psychiatric pathologies.
Transorbital perforation developed rapidly and several types of lobotomy soon emerged: the temporal lobe could be operated on (this was the most frequent), but also the parietal, frontal or prefrontal.
Later the technique acquired even more macabre procedures, with the use of an ice pick that perforated the skull through the lacrimalby blows applied with a rubber mallet. This horrendous practice reaped more failures than successes and began to fall into disuse from the sixties. Origin of the lobotomy
In the midst of the effervescence of medical advances, the neurosurgeon Edgar Moniz believed he had found the remedy against mental disorders: if he managed to break the connection between the frontal lobe and other parts of the brain, he would decrease neuronal activity and impair psychological functions. 1935: The Moniz leukotomy
was intended to literally destroy the part of the brain that generated neuronal activityso that the patient was relieved of the symptoms of his alteration. This was expected to mitigate the effects of depression, schizophrenia, panic attacks, manic disorders, etc.
In 1935 he practiced the first leukotomy: leuko means white and take cut, since it was intended to cut the so-called “white matter” of the brain. The method was so brutal that 6% of his patients did not survive the operation . But Moniz assured that in the rest of the patients he had had a resounding success.
So transorbital drilling began to catch on: End psychiatric disorders with one operation?
Many people were willing to take any risk to be cured .
It must be taken into account that at that time there were no psychopharmaceuticals and many psychiatric problems had no solution. In fact, the other innovations in that field included sleep inductions with barbiturates or conscious contagion with malaria, which was much more risky. Walter Freeman’s lobotomy
Moniz’s leukotomy was most successful in the United States, where Walter Freeman extended it under the name of lobotomy (lobe cutting).
It seems incredible that Freeman’s practices obtained so much fervor among the people, taking into account how macabre it was: he numbed his patients with electric shocks and then pierced the bone of the eye socket with a pickof ice that moved to the right and left to sever the lobe.
Medical authorities enthusiastically embraced Freeman’s method. It was claimed that most of the patients , hitherto condemned to being crammed into overcrowded asylums, now saw reduced anxiety and violent impulses.
Freeman, performing a lobotomy on a patient. | Image from: independent.co
It is estimated that more than 2,000 people underwent the “ice pick lobotomy” of Dr. Freeman, who traveled with his van throughout the country to practice his therapy. When this normalized and began to spread, around 50,000 patients were lobotomized.
However, in the mid-1950s, the first psychopharmaceuticals began to be marketed . This coincided with the notorious death of a Freeman patient due to a hemorrhage, so patients began to prefer less aggressive therapies based on pills.
Little by little, lobotomy was disappearing and in the sixties many countries prohibited its practice. Consequences of lobotomy
Advocates of such practices claimed that lobotomy did not pose any risk to the patient, since the punch did not reach vital parts of the brain. In addition, it was accepted that patients lost part of their intellectual abilities , but it was assumed as an inevitable counterpart, as a necessary evil.
And therein lay the problem of the matter. Until then, the principle of primum non nocere (first not to harm) prevailed in medicine, but lobotomy introduced the concept of “doing whatever it takes”. And so, some risks that ended in tragedy began to normalize.
However, many patients did not survive the carnage and either bled to death or their mental faculties suffered from chronic degeneration . 5 real examples
In 1949 Egdar Moniz received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, but much earlier, in 1938, he had received eight shots from a patient of his who claimed he had not received adequate therapy. He was paralyzed for the rest of his life.
And he was not the only one. So much so that, although the scientific community continues to recognize the role of this doctor and blame Freeman, even today relatives of lobotomy victims demand that Moniz withdraw the award. These are some of the most famous cases of lobotomized patients: 1. Evita Peron
When lobotomy was a popular surgical technique, it began to be used for everything, including pain reduction. In 1951, Argentine First Lady Eva Peron was diagnosed with uterine cancer that ended up killing her a year later.
Eva Peron may have undergone a lobotomy. | Image from: A&E Biography.
His popularity made everything very secretive, but many years later the Hungarian doctor George Udvarhelyi assured that the pain he suffered was so enormous that it was decided to perform a prefrontal lobotomy for palliative purposes. Evita was in a terminal state, and she was not even informed of the operation.
That does not appear in the medical history of her deceased, and some members of her medical team maintain that it is false since morphine already existed at that time. This maintains the uncertainty that could be resolved only with the exhumation of her body. 2. Rosemary Kennedy
The sister of the president of the United States John F. Kennedy was a strange girl who many suspected that she suffered from mild mental retardation, while others leaned towards a depressive mind. However, the anomaly managed to go unnoticed and the girl used to be presented at events of high society without any qualms.
However, as she entered adulthood she began to have an impulsive behavior that made the Kennedys fear a scandal that could affect her brother’s political role. In 1943, at age 21, she convinced her father to perform a lobotomy on her in order to control her emotional ups and downs and mitigate her aggressiveness.
The result was an operation by Professor James Watt, who claimed to have made an incision while she was lightly anesthetized. Meanwhile, Freeman questioned Rosemary and when she began to lose coherence, they stopped cutting.
Kennedy’s sister did not recover, but was left even more groggy than she already was and suffered from chronic urinary incontinence. She lived until she was 86 years old in a center. 3. Howard Dully and Josef Hassid
One of the most publicized anonymous cases is that of Howard Dully, thanks to the book “My Lobotomy”. When he was 12 years old he was diagnosed with schizophrenia by Freeman, who after consulting the family proceeded with the macabre operation. Witness to this is a photograph in which the child is seen before Freeman’s punch.
In his book he assures that he does not remember the moment of the operation, but that it produced psychological consequences from which he has never recovered.. His life clumsily advanced between the discomfort of psychiatric institutions and the drama of begging, since he ended up as a beggar on the street.
Another case is that of the Polish violinist Josef Hassid, a child prodigy of music marked by tragedy: at the age of 18 he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and at the age of 23 he underwent a lobotomy. His illness not only did not improve, but after that he was interned in various asylums until he died at 26. 4. The soldiers of the Second World War
One of the phenomena of American society after the Second World War was the difficult reintegration of the soldiers. The young people who had fought in the front returned to their homes with evident psychiatric imbalancessuch as sleep disorders, depression with anxiety, and manic disturbances.
But at that time, a health network was not yet extended in the United States that would allow the state to care for these patients, so it was decided to intervene about 2,000 soldiers with lobotomy . Some were forced to undergo surgery, and many others suffered consequences for the rest of their lives. 5. The Denbigh
psychiatric hospital One of the settings that best represents the horror of the lobotomy is the Denbigh psychiatric hospital in Wales. The mentally ill were crowded there and some rooms were even used as a prison for patients who tried to escape.
In that museum of horrors between 1942 and 1944 more than 20 patients were operated with the Freeman method, until one of them died during the intervention . In the mid-1960s, the authorities approved the closure of such a rugged institution, but a ghostly halo remained behind that still accompanies it today.
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