Friday, September 14, 2012

Helping the Mentally Ill

Caution: this post contains graphic pictures and a graphic video clip. 

A lobotomy is an operation on the brain.

The reason it sometimes works is not entirely clear, but it is used to calm agitated or aggressive mental patients, and for other reasons, such as to relieve depression or some obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

A lobotomy (more correctly a prefrontal lobotomy) involves cutting the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex of the brain. That is, the two lobes of the brain in front, behind the forehead. Initially, the operation, which was first used in the early part of the 20th century, was quite crude. The head had to be cut open. Risk of infection was pretty high, as you might imagine in primitive brain surgery. But it had a high rate of success in calming the patient down. Often, of course, this calming was to the extent that the patient didn't care one way or the other anymore, or, in some cases, became rather unresponsive generally.
This picture is purported to be genuine, though I have my doubts. It is a bit too Hollywood, I think.

As the science progressed through the years, ways were discovered to perform the cutting of the brain without opening the skull radically. For example, in one technique, a small hole was drilled in the side of the head and a cutting instrument was inserted in that hole.
Perhaps the most famous of the people who popularized lobotomies and pioneered new techniques in them, was Dr. Walter Freeman. In his lifetime he performed almost 3500 of the procedures.

Dr. Freeman was the inventor of the transorbital lobotomy. In this procedure, and ice pick-like device was inserted through the patient's eye socket and tapped with a hammer to break through the thin bone layer, and into the brain's frontal lobe. The patient was "anesthetized" prior to this by using electric shock to induce convulsions. The procedure was done through both eyes, cutting both frontal lobes.

You can watch a short video of the procedure here, from a PBS documentary on Dr. Freeman.

One of the most famous lobotomies, and one of the most tragic, was performed on Rosemary Kennedy, daughter of Joseph Kennedy and sister of President Kennedy. Rosemary wasn't that abnormal. She was prone to mood swings and was a little "slow" compared to her brilliant siblings, perhaps a little clumsy, but not severely mentally deficient (she could do division and multiplication) She was presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1938 (her father was the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James's) and, it is said, she stumbled a bit on her curtsey, which embarrassed her father. But she was all right. She spoke well, dressed well, kept a diary. Her older brother John doted on her. The lobotomy, performed by Dr. Freeman, left her an incontinent vegetable who could only babble. A tragedy. You can read a bit more about her on the below link under the pictures.

Rosemary is standing left, rear, in the below photo.

If you would like to read a list and descriptions of some of Dr. Freeman's lobotomy patients, including Rosemary Kennedy, it is available online here.


  1. I suspect that your obsession with this procedure has grown significantly since first being around a certain somebody (whose name should not be mentioned too often).

  2. Now that you mention it, I do seem to make a connection. :)

  3. I once saw a movie about Frances Farmer and her lobotomy, very sad.

    1. Farmer was never lobotomized. The movie was a pack of lies to make some money. Don't believe movies, Rob. Heh.

      Lobotomy claims
      In 1978, Seattle film reviewer William Arnold published Shadowland, which for the first time alleged that Farmer had been the subject of a transorbital lobotomy. Scenes of Farmer being subjected to this lobotomy procedure were part of the 1982 film Frances, which had initially been planned as an adaptation of Shadowland, though its producers ultimately reneged on their agreement with Arnold.[3] During a court case against Brooksfilm (the film's producers), Arnold revealed that the lobotomy episode and much of his biography about Farmer was "fictionalized".[3] Years later, on a DVD commentary track of the film Frances, director Graeme Clifford stated, "We didn't want to nickel and dime people to death with facts."[10]
      Farmer's sister, Edith, denied that the procedure was done. She said the hospital asked her parents' permission to perform the lobotomy, but her father was “horrified” by the notion and threatened legal action "if they tried any of their guinea pig operations on her."[11] Western State Hospital recorded all the lobotomies performed during Farmer's period there. Since lobotomies were considered ground-breaking medical procedure, the hospital did not attempt to conceal its work. Although nearly 300 patients received the procedure, no evidence supports a claim that Farmer was among them.[3] In 1983 Seattle newspapers interviewed former hospital staff members, including all the lobotomy ward nurses who were on duty during Farmer's years at Western State, and they all stated Farmer was never a patient on that ward. Dr. Walter Freeman's private patient records contained no references to Farmer. Dr. Charles Jones, psychiatric resident at Western State during Farmer's stays, also stated that Farmer was never given a lobotomy.[12]

    2. Don't believe movies? So Batman is not a real person? And Arnold Schwarzenegger was not the governor of California?

    3. I will admit Batman was real.



Related Posts with Thumbnails