History of Lobotomy

History of Lobotomy


Lobotomy is one of the most controversial neurosurgical procedures to ever grow popular in the Western world. It is a rather radical invasive procedure that has proven to be effective in some cases; however, the procedure was also known for causing a variety of negative side effects that sometimes worsened the condition of the patients. The history of lobotomy in medicine has been brief but stormy with both wide recognition and severed criticism throughout the two decades of its extensive popularity.

The idea of invasive surgical procedure into the brain of the patient originates from the studies of John Fulton and C. F. Jacobsen, Yale psychologists who experimented with the brains of chimps. They have found that the removal of the frontal lobes of chimpanzee’s brain makes animals calmer and more obedient. These findings later inspired a Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz to develop a surgical procedure called leucotomy that has become widely known as a lobotomy. Moniz assumed that the removal of white fibers from the frontal lobe would cause a positive influence on the patients with particular mental disorders. In 1935, the first leucotomy was performed on an elderly woman with insomnia, visual hallucinations, and anxiety (Kucharski 765-772). The patient soon experiences a significant improvement, she has become calmer, less paranoid, she was well-oriented, and felt well overall. Moniz kept on performing these surgeries, and after 40 successful surgeries, he admitted that most of the patients experienced significant improvements. Some of them, however, endured significant personality changes which Moniz considered to be a reasonable price for the improvement of their mental health.

Immediately, there emerged a criticism of the procedure when Sobral Cid, the owner of the mental hospital in Lisbon from where Moniz took the patients, claimed that the patients returned from the procedure being in the worse condition than they were before. He noticed irreversible changes in their personality and a degradation of mental capacities (Gruber 263-265). Nonetheless, the procedure has become popular and neurosurgeons in many Western countries practiced it as the treatment for a variety of mental illnesses.

The original procedure was later improved by Walter Freeman and James Watts who found it to be very effective. They developed the Freeman-Watts technique that has become known as a standard prefrontal lobotomy. In 1945, Freeman invented the new approach to lobotomy; he was concerned by the complexity of the prefrontal lobotomy and decided to make the procedure simpler and more accessible. He took his kitchen icepick and started his experiments with cadavers by approaching the brain through the eye sockets. Later on, this procedure has become prevalent and was practiced by many doctors, even those who were not really taught to do it. This caused a conflict between Freeman and Watts because the latter was shocked by the fact that a complex surgical procedure was turned into a simple clinical procedure that can be performed by almost any doctor.

The criticism grew further and in 1950, the lobotomy was banned in the Soviet Union as an inhumane procedure. A variety of European countries also denounced and banned the procedure (Gruber 263-265). In the US, it was practiced up to the 1970s when in 1977 the US Congress voted against this procedure and banned it. In the 21st century, the controversy arose around the Nobel Prize awarded to Moniz for his invention of leucotomy. Nowadays, the procedure is regarded as ineffective, inhumane, and unscientific; nonetheless, it is necessary to admit that it was a step towards the improvements in the field of neurosurgery.

Works Cited

Gruber, David R. “American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History By Jenell Johnson.” Configurations 24.2 (2016): 263-265. Web.

Kucharski, Anastasia. “History Of Frontal Lobotomy In The United States, 1935-1955.” Neurosurgery 14.6 (1984): 765-772. Web.




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