The New York Times‘s Retro Report has produced a new video on the history of lobotomy, First, Do No Harm. As Retro Report describes,
For centuries scientists have studied the brain and still our understanding, particularly when it comes to the treatment for those suffering with severe, often untreatable mental illness, remains elusive. As scientists around the world are beginning ambitious programs to study the human brain in unprecedented ways, Retro Report explores the evolution of the surgical and biological treatments over the decades. From the brutal, but once considered mainstream treatment of lobotomy to biological cocktails, to the beginnings of what many hope will be a more elegant understanding of the brain through technology.
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 rise and widespread acceptance of psychosurgery constitutes one of the most troubling chapters in the history of modern medicine. By the late 1950s, tens of thousands of Americans had been lobotomized as treatment for a host of psychiatric disorders. Though the procedure would later be decried as devastating and grossly unscientific, many patients, families, and physicians reported veritable improvement from the surgery; some patients were even considered cured.
The Lobotomy Letters gives an account of why this controversial procedure was sanctioned by psychiatrists and doctors of modern medicine. Drawing from original correspondence penned by lobotomy patients and their families as well as from the professional papers of lobotomy pioneer and neurologist Walter Freeman, the volume reconstructs how physicians, patients, and their families viewed lobotomy and analyzes the reasons for its overwhelming use.
Included on the site are sections dedicated to Phineas Gage’s story, the detailing of damage done to Gage’s skull, the indirect contribution Phineas Gage’s case provided brain surgery, and a section providing references for further reading on Phineas Gage.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ABC News is reporting that the mental hospital in Salem, Oregon that served as the set for the 1975 film version of Ken Kesey‘s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” will soon be demolished. The film’s depiction of the mistreatment of patients and predatory staff is often cited as a significant part of the public backlash that took hold around that time against electroconvulsive (“shock”) therapy, psychosurgery, and state mental hospitals more broadly. It has also provided a focal point for psychiatrists’ criticism of the public understanding of how they actually treat patients. The film won five Academy Awards: best picture, director, actor, actress, and adapted screenplay. It also won six Golden Globe Awards.