Today in History: First lobotomy in the USA

in #history5 years ago

Knowing what we know today and the fact that we have access to some pretty awesome anti-psychotic drugs it is hard to believe that a lobotomy was actually considered a tremendous advancement in science and medicine.

Although the procedure wasn't invented in America, or even by an American, USA was seen as the world leader at the time and their adoption of this practice kind of gave the rest of the world the "green light" as far as blendering the front portion of someone's brain was concerned.

The year was 1936.


Walter Freeman is seen as the "father of the lobotomy" and as I mentioned he is not the person who discovered that the pre-frontal lobe's removal caused people with severe mental disorders to calm TF down. However, he was the first person to perform said procedure without drilling holes into the skull. The removal or destruction of the front of the brain was credited to Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz who actually received a Nobel Prize for this discovery.


Dr. Freeman was able to perform the same procedure by going through the eye socket in a process called the “ice-pick” lobotomy. This procedure required no drilling and could be completed in 10 minutes. Yes, it is as gruesome as it sounds. This description of the procedure makes my skin crawl.

"It involved rendering a patient unconscious by electroshock before inserting a sharp ice-pick-like instrument above the patient’s eyeball. The instrument would be hammered into the skull and wiggled back and forth in order to sever the connections to the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobes of the brain. "


It seems rather barbaric by today's standards but Freeman was not a mad scientist, he merely believe the state of a patient after a lobotomy (in regards to severe mental illness) to be better than the alternative. In some cases the patients were rendered permanently into a vegetative state. However, prior to that they had to be physically restrained in straight-jackets, padded cells, or had to be constantly be extremely sedated. Given the fact that mental hospitals were friggin overflowing in the late 30's and early 40's, this advancement was seen as a magnificent cure-all.

With what we know today it is difficult to imagine that this process carried on well into the 60's. Just kidding, the procedure has been performed well into the 1980's sometimes against the patient's will.

Today, lobotomies are still performed although it is extremely rare, the procedure doesn't involve hammering through the eye socket, and it is never performed without the patient's consent unless there is a court order - I am not aware of any recent time that this has been such a sentence handed down by a court.

although it is 100% fiction, Jack Nicholson's lobotomy in "One Flew over the Cukcoo's nest is probably the most famous of all time (see that movie, by the way)

It was quite fashionable in the 40's to dole out lobotomies for all manor of illness, and there are even rumblings of it being used on political opponents, of course, against their will. The advancement of drugs in the 50's and 60's lead to a near complete elimination of the procedure.

One of the most famous failures and a great example of overuse of the lobotomy was the case of Rosemary Kennedy - the sister of future president John F. Kennedy.


Rosemary was described as having "occasional mood swings" and being a rebellious child. Her frustrated father took Rosemary to see a now famous Dr. Freeman who diagnosed her with agitated depression and performed the lobotomy the same day. After the procedure she had lost the ability to speak and now had extremely limited mental capacities.

Rather than admit that he "effed up" Rosemary's father had her institutionalized and hid the fact that the botched lobotomy had been ordered by him. It wasn't until a long while after her father's death that the truth behind Rosemary's case was revealed. She never did regain the ability to speak and remained in a care home until she was 86. Ironically, she is the only of her siblings to die of natural causes.


I'm virtually positive that whatever things doctors are doing on people today will be look at in a fairly similar light 100 years from now.

Oh absolutely. I'm reminded of the time McCoy went back in time to earth and gave a sick patient a pill to grow a new kidney while passing through a hospital. 😁

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I had never heard of the Kennedy lobotomy, wow! Humans are interesting creatures..

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until I was researching this article, neither had I. The Kennedy family did a good job burying that one. If it weren't for the ol' interwebs we likely would have never known.

I'm not a movie fan but now I want to see "One flew over the 'cuckoos nest.. the subject of lobotomy always intrigued me but I never found enough info to satisfy my curiosity.. Kind of the same thing with those weird experiments people say Hitler was doing and such.. some things I guess we might never know..

although the movie is old, there are some fantastic performances by Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher in that movie. It was made in 1975 but there are virtually no special effects or anything so it should have aged well. I suggest you check it out if you have time. The movie isn't about lobotomies so much, but well, anyway, i don wanna spoil it. It is a great film .

Sweet! I will definitely check it out!

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Yeah, that all sounds pretty horrible. I often hear people talk about how there are more people around with mental illness these days than in the past. Personally, I think there are probably the same number. Back then though, we locked people away in institutions for every little thing and you never heard from them again. These days that doesn't happen and that is why there seem to be more. I am not saying it was right what they did back then at all. That is just my theory.

i think that most mental illnesses that people claim we "have an increase in" today are actually because 1: There are more people today and 2: our ability to assess a mental problem as a disease has increased immensely in the past 50-100 years. Of course we are probably wrong about a lot of that too but still .

Wow. That was a frightening article, the surgeon and staff don’t seem to have any concept of sterile operating techniques and the idea of inserting an instrument and twisting it back and forth inside someone’s brain is so violent and imprecise.
It’s amazing that it could pass any intellectual review at all. Poor Rosemary, how could you do something like that to your daughter. I don’t think I could live with myself.

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