The History of Lobotomy – Dr. Egas Moniz

Since prehistoric times, the mentally ill have been subjected to barbaric “treatments;” no less a personage than King George III was subjected to an endless regimen of blistering, bleeding, and purging.

Thankfully, many of the effects of such treatments could be reversed with the passage of time. So psychiatry, ever ardent in its quest for a cure, invented a procedure that was irreversibly damaging to the personality, intellect, and even humanity of the hapless patient.

Dr. Egas Moniz and the Prefrontal Lobotomy-Lobotomy 

In 1935, Portuguese neurologist Dr. Egas Moniz had been a political activist, an ambassador, a member of the Portuguese Parliament, and a distinguished faculty member at the University of Lisbon. Yet, it’s said that he was not satisfied with his career. He was described as bitter and regretful over his loss of the Nobel Prize to another nominee and by his perceived inability to make a truly memorable contribution to medicine.

Attending the Second International Congress in Neurology, he heard a report by American researcher Carlyle Jacobson, who had removed the frontal lobes of two chimpanzees named Becky and Lucy. Although the chimps’ cognitive skills plummeted after their lobotomies, Becky no longer flew into a rage when she failed to solve a problem.

Dr. Moniz was thrilled by this. Somehow he developed the notion that Becky’s behavioral changes presented the exciting possibility of a complete cure for schizophrenia and mood disorders. For the next year, he had his assistant drill holes in patients’ skulls to prove his theory. At first, he squirted absolute alcohol into the brain to dehydrate and kill neurons; later he cut out six “corings” from each side of the brain.

Lobotomy in the U.S.-Lobotomy 

Moniz believed his operations were a stunning success. Drs. Walter Freeman and James Watts were young, prominent American neurologists when Dr. Moniz published his results. They began to perform lobotomies on numerous patients, cutting and drilling in various locations on the skull depending on the nature of the individual’s symptoms. Many of their operations needed to be repeated several times.

By 1943, 618 lobotomies had been performed in America. Surgeons received fees as high as $1500 for the so-called miracle operation. U.S. newspapers reported that lobotomies were no more invasive than a visit to the dentist’s office. It’s was said that “nerve victims” and “raving maniacs” alike were restored to full functionality by the operation that some dubbed a scientific sensation.

Lobotomy During the 1950s and Beyond-Lobotomy 

During the next decade, many more patients were lobotomized. About 60% of patients were impoverished residents of state hospitals. A hyperactive four-year-old child was even subjected to the operation.

Freeman developed a quick and easy method of lobotomizing a patient: the transorbital lobotomy, which involved thrusting a surgical knife through the eye sockets and “swiggl[ing] it around,” as Dr. Louis Hatcher, of Georgia, once so eloquently explained.

During the 1970s, it was still occasionally used to quiet disruptive patients, a fact that Ken Kesey used to appall readers in the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In 1973, the International Congress of Neurological Surgeons was halted by protestors because the host country of Japan was still performing lobotomies on mentally ill children.

The Real Effects of Lobotomy

The rosy picture presented in the medical journals and headlines was wildly expurgated. Lobotomized patients actually lost all ambition and zest for life. Their intelligence dropped noticeably. Sometimes they defecated in wastebaskets or appeared nude before family members and friends.

Often, they acted extremely primitively when it came to sexual matters. Freeman cheerfully advised spouses to enjoy the “exhilarating if unconventional experience,” though he also noted that learning self-defense techniques might come in handy.

Musicians, artists, and writers had sought out the technique for depression and other side effects of the “artistic temperament.” After their operations, they lost all creativity; but did not seem to care. In 1950, Freeman and Watts explained that this effect was of no consequence: “Society can accommodate itself to the most humble laborer, but it justifiably distrusts the mad thinker.”

Most lobotomy victims became obese, gobbling from other people’s plates at mealtimes. Some stared out the window for hours; others simply stayed in bed until physically removed. Approximately 25% of patients literally sat around doing nothing all day. That was a fine outcome as far and Freeman and Watts were concerned, for the patients had adjusted “at the level of a domestic invalid or household pet.” The lobotomy patients who did manage to return to the workforce were often summarily fired for lack of productivity.

Even Mad Science Has a Moral

In the 1960s, the phrase “Question Authority” became a popular slogan. Some believe that the lesson of lobotomy is that unquestioning faith in anyone, including medical professionals and journalists, can inevitably lead society down a nightmarish path of complacency and utter disregard for its most vulnerable members.

In 1949, Dr. Moniz won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. It was never rescinded, even after he true nature of this operation became apparent.

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Psychology » Gama Fox


Horwitz, Elinor Lander, Madness, Magic, and Medicine, J.B. Lippincott Co., 1977.

“ Nobel Panel Urged to Rescind Prize for Lobotomies,” August, 2005.

Whitaker, Robert, Mad in America, Perseus Publishing, 2002.

Freeman and Watts’s quotes taken from Horwitz, p. 150; and Whitaker, p. 124-125.

Dr. Hatcher’s statement taken from Whitaker, p.134.

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