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Nov. 12, 1935: You Should (Not) Have a Lobotomy

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Old 11-12-2008
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Nov. 12, 1935: You Should (Not) Have a Lobotomy
1935: The world's first modern frontal leukotomy is performed in a Lisbon hospital by Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz.
Moniz's leukotomy (or leucotomy, from the Greek for "cutting white," in this case the brain's white matter) soon became popularly known as the lobotomy. It was not, however, the surgical procedure now generally associated with lobotomies. Rather, Moniz drilled two holes in the patient's skull and injected pure alcohol into the frontal lobes of the brain to destroy the tissue, in an effort to alter the patient's behavior.
Within a year of Moniz's procedure at Lisbon's Santa Marta Hospital, American neurosurgeons Walter Freeman and James Watts had performed the first prefrontal lobotomy in the United States. Their approach, which they would continue refining in subsequent surgeries, also involved drilling holes, but instead of using alcohol they surgically severed the nerves connecting the prefrontal cortex to the thalamus.
With various refinements, this became standard operating procedure for the prefrontal lobotomy.
Lobotomies were performed on patients suffering from severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and clinical depression, although its use on people identified as having social disorders was not unknown. That the lobotomy succeeded in altering a person's personality and behavior is beyond dispute, but the results were often drastic, and occasionally fatal.
The notion that a mental patient's behavior could be modified for the good by psychosurgery had its roots in the work of Gottlieb Burckhardt, a 19th century Swiss neurologist who performed a number of crude surgical lobotomies and declared the procedure generally successful. His documentation was almost nonexistent, however, and the view was never universally held in the medical fraternity.
Although Moniz would share the 1949 Nobel Prize in medicine for his pioneering work in psychosurgery, the lobotomy had not only fallen out of favor by the 1950s but was being excoriated as a barbaric practice. The Soviet Union banned the surgery in 1950, arguing that it was "contrary to the principles of humanity." Other countries, including Germany and Japan, banned it, too, but lobotomies continued to be performed on a limited scale in the United States, Britain, Scandinavia and several western European countries well into the 1980s.
The United States performed more lobotomies -- roughly 40,000 -- than any other nation. Some very conspicuous failures, including a lobotomy that reduced John F. Kennedy's elder sister, Rosemary, to a near-vegetative state, helped turn public opinion against the surgery.
Or, as the hard-drinking wit Dorothy Parker observed: "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy."
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