The January 2014 issue of The Psychologist, the flagship publication of the British Psychological Society (BPS), is now online and includes an article on patient experiences of lobotomy. In “Looking Back: Interpreting Lobotomy – The Patients’ Stories” historian of medicine Mical Raz describes how patients and their families experienced the lobotomies preformed by Walter Freeman in the first half of the twentieth century. As Raz describes,
Freeman’s commitment toward the patients and the restoration of their health seemed so evident to patients and their families that even in cases of an unsuccessful lobotomy leading to disability or death, the families of the patients expressed their gratitude to him. Following a patient’s death after a second surgical attempt, the patient’s sister thanked Freeman and his partner, James Watts, for their ‘concern and interest’ in her sister’s condition. She was sure, she added, that her sister also would have thanked the physicians, ‘if she were able to do so’ (Maeve Ingber’s sister to James Watts, 1948). In his response, Freeman wrote that he and Watts had been ‘greatly disappointed in the outcome’. Yet he added that this had been a ‘situation of extraordinary difficulty where surgery offered the only opportunity for giving her peace of mind’. Commending the sister for her positive attitude toward ‘this unfortunate outcome’, Freeman thanked her for her letter (WF to Maeve Ingber’s sister, 1948). The physicians’ willingness to attempt surgery, and thus provide even a slim hope of cure, was interpreted as evidence of their care and dedication. For the families, this expression of interest and what was seen as a sincere desire to help their loved one was so significant that the results of the lobotomy, even the death of the patient, could be interpreted in a positive manner.
The article can be read in full here.
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After posting about BBC Radio4’s new program A History of the Brain earlier this week, we bring to your attention yet another BBC Radio4 production: The Lobotomists. To mark the 75th anniversary of the first lobotomy performed in the United States, the program explores the work of Portuguese doctor Egas Moniz who first developed the lobotomy (or leucotomy), as well as the work of neurologist Walter Freeman and neurosurgeon Sir Wylie McKissock, who took up the procedure in the United States and Britain respectively. The Lobotomists can be heard online here and AHP’s previous posts on Walter Freeman and lobotomies can be found here.
A lengthy description of The Lobotomists is available on the program’s website and reproduced below:
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2011 marks a 75th anniversary that many would prefer to forget: of the first lobotomy in the US. It was performed by an ambitious young American neurologist called Walter Freeman. Over his career, Freeman went on to perform perhaps 3,000 lobotomies, on both adults and later on children. He often performed 10 procedures or more a day. Perhaps 40,000 patients in the US were lobotomised during the heyday of the operation – and an estimated 17,000 more in the UK.
This programme tells the story of three key figures in the strange history of lobotomy – and for the first time explores the popularity of lobotomy in the UK in detail.
The story starts in 1935 with a Portuguese doctor called Egas Moniz, who pioneered a radical surgical procedure on the brain. Continue reading BBC Radio4: The Lobotomists
As a followup to our recent post about Miriam Posner‘s work on the lobotomy photographs of Walter Freeman, I would like to draw AHP‘s readers attention to a recent posting on Posner’s blog, Academitron. For anyone interested in learning more about the role of photography in the history of psychiatry/psychology, Posner has posted “Psychiatry, Photography, and Lobotomy: A Bibliography,” an extensive list of works on the subject.
You can find that list here, and Posner’s blog here.
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Science and the Arts, a project of NPR’s Science Friday, has posted a slideshow of Dr. Walter Freeman‘s before and after photographs of lobotomy patients. The slideshow is based on the work of Miriam Posner, Mellon Postdoctoral Research Associate at Emory University, who also narrates the slideshow. Prosner recently completed her Yale University dissertation on Freeman and his lobotomy photographs. She argues that for Freeman the photographs served as medical evidence of the benefits of lobotomy and provided justification for his focus on external behavior rather than their mental states when evaluating surgical outcomes.
As Posner writes on her website,
Walter Freeman (1895 – 1972) was a neurologist who pioneered and popularized lobotomy. In this procedure, the brain’s frontal lobe is separated from the thalamus. The effects of lobotomy vary from patient to patient, but the procedure was designed to make aggressive mental patients less dangerous. Freeman thought that lobotomy had wider applications, and he administered lobotomies to patients suffering from depression and pain. All in all, Freeman performed more than 3,500 lobotomies, often as outpatient procedures…The neurologist was also an avid photographer, obsessively documenting his patients before and after their procedures. Freeman also made a series of films showing lobotomies and their effects. After he stopped performing lobotomies in the early 1960s, Freeman crossed the country in his van (nicknamed the Lobotomobile), tracking down former patients and snapping their photographs.
The full slideshow can be viewed here.
Thanks to Cathy Faye for bringing this to AHP‘s attention.
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