Surviving Lobotomy - Recent History of Medicine

In 1946, the psychiatrist Walter Freeman performed the first transorbital or "ice-pick" lobotomy. He believed that by cutting the brain he can cure mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Dr. Freeman was a graduate of some of the most prestigious schools in the U.S., the Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

He performed lobotomies on thousands of patients, despite the fact that some of them died or were incapacitated for life. One such patient was Rose Marie Kennedy who was the third child Joseph and Rose Kennedy and a sister of the Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. She underwent a lobotomy when she was 23 and after that she was in a nearly vegetative state for the rest of her life. The procedure is described in chilling details by Dr. Freeman's partner, Dr. Watts:

"We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch." The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. "We put an instrument inside," he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord's Prayer or sing "God Bless America" or count backwards. ... "We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded." ... When she began to become incoherent, they stopped (Kessler, 226, Wikipedia).

Dr. Freeman conducted a national campaign traveling around the country in his van called a "lobotomobile". His goal was to educate and train surgeons and psychiatrist in the 10-minute procedure he pioneered. He was featured regularly on the front pages of the national newspapers like the New York Times.

One of Dr. Freeman's patients is the 56-year-old bus driver Howard Dully who describes his story in 'My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey featured on NPR (audio) and CNN (video).

This type of treatment looks barbaric today but at that time rather gruesome methods were used to treat psychiatric disorders. One example is the insulin shock therapy which involved injecting a patient with massive amounts of insulin, which caused convulsions and coma. It was discovered by Polish researcher Manfred Sakel in 1933 and was used until the 1950s.

The discovery of the first antipsychotic medication, thorazine, put an end to these forms of treatment.

From Wikipedia
Walter Freeman
Manfred Sakel
Rose Marie Kennedy

The Lobotomist by Jack El-Hai

Image source: Wikipedia 1, 2

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