In a recent post on the history of medicine blog Remedia historian of science Delia Gavrus documents efforts to reform criminals through brain surgery. These surgeries, undertaken from the late-nineteenth century through the 1920s, helped set the stage for the advent of the lobotomy in the 1930s. As Gavrus notes,
The belief that surgery on the skull and brain could cure afflictions of the mind may appear out of place in the 1920s, coming as it did many years before the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz developed a psychosurgical technique in which the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain were severed in an attempt to alleviate symptoms of mental illness (the prefrontal leucotomy or lobotomy, first performed in 1935).
In fact, ‘escaping’ prison by way of surgery on the skull or brain was far from unprecedented in the decades before the introduction of lobotomy. If Gardner didn’t learn about the procedure from a doctor, he might very well have been inspired by the many stories similar to his own which appeared in the newspapers. For instance, a decade and a half earlier, a notorious check forger underwent a much talked about skull operation that drew commentary even from a former chief of the United States Secret Service. The Governor of New York pardoned Edward Grimmell because “[m]any scientific men are interested in seeing whether his criminal tendencies have disappeared, which can only be determined by his conduct when at large […] I am willing that the Parole Board should permit the experiment to be tried in this case […].”
The full post can be read online here.