This memorial is dedicated to the victims of lobotomy. Psychosurgery.org seeks to honor their memories and make certain that their tragedy is not forgotten.
Lobotomy was not a procedure on the fringe of science. It was a mainstream treatment advocated by many highly-educated physicians and prestigious institutions, praised in breathless news articles, and touted as an amazing neurosurgical advance. The inventor of the operation, Egas Moniz, was even awarded a Nobel Prize for it.
If we truly wish to avoid repeating the psychiatric treatment mistakes of the past, we must study the fiasco of lobotomy and related psychosurgeries with unflinching honesty. In the words of Jeffrey Schwartz, a research psychiatrist at UCLA:
“We as a profession had one generation of humility after the era of lobotomy, but it’s gone. We’re now back to a point where the elite of our society believe that the most sophisticated way to treat mental illness is with drugs, magnetic fields, a knife or radiation beam. It’s especially important that we hear the rest of the lobotomy story from people who were there.”
What is a Lobotomy Anyway?
There are nerves that connect the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain. The idea behind psycho surgery, later proven to be invalid, was that these nerves were somehow malformed or damaged, and if they were severed they might regenerate into new, healthy connections. Contrary to popular conception, the operation was not used only on psychiatric patients. Many people were lobotomized for “intractable pain”, such as chronic, severe backaches or agonizing headaches.
The three common versions of psycho surgery were prefrontal leucotomy, prefrontal lobotomy, and transorbital lobotomy.
A leucotomy basically involved drilling holes in the skull in order to access the brain. Once visible, the surgeon would sever the nerves using a pencil-sized tool called a leucotome. It had a slide mechanism on the side that would deploy a wire loop or loops from the tip. The idea was to be able to slide the “pencil” into the pre-drilled holes in the top of skull, into the brain, then use the slide to make the loop(s) come out. The surgeon could sever the nerves by removing “cores” of brain tissue, slide the loop back in, and the operation was complete.
A lobotomy also utilized drilled holes, but in the upper forehead instead of the top of the skull. It was also different in that the surgeon used a blade to cut the brain instead of a leucotome.
The infamous transorbital lobotomy was a “blind” operation in that the surgeon did not know for certain if he had severed the nerves or not. A sharp, ice-pick like object would be inserted through the eye socket between the upper lid and eye. When the doctor thought he was at about the right spot, he would hit the end of the instrument with a hammer.
There were other types of lobotomy as well … as many varieties as there were imaginative neurosurgeons.
Despite the fact that there was extensive evidence that psychosurgery was not therapeutic, operations continued unabated for decades. This was because it was considered unprofessional to criticize another physician in public, so many doctors who knew that psychosurgery was a farce did not make their opinions known. This allowed the psychosurgeons to continue unchecked from the late 1930s through the 1970s.