What is a lobotomy and what was it done?

In 1935, the Portuguese neurosurgeon and psychiatrist António Egas Moniz he had a surgery called a leukotomy.

It consisted of making two holes in the front of the skull and injecting alcohol directly into the frontal lobe of the brain through them. Years later, this practice had become lobotomy, And his popularity in the world of psychiatry led Egas Moniz to win the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1949. What happened?

The birth of the lobotomy

The etymology of the term leukotomy serves to give us an idea of ​​the purpose for which the lobotomies were performed; leuko means white, and to take means to cut. Egas Moniz believed that certain mental disorders could be cured by breaking down certain areas of the brain in which the frontal lobe communicates with others in the brain. That is, damaging parts of the white matter in the brain, so named because it is dominated by axons (parts of the neuron that extend to communicate with distant nerve cells).

This neurosurgeon started from the idea that it was possible to considerably reduce the intensity and the frequency of the symptoms of psychiatric disorders by declining all of his psychological functions in general. Part of the intellectual capacity and personality of each patient has been sacrificed to try to bring it closer to healing.

Walter Freeman’s Lobotomy

Egas Moniz’s proposal may seem brutal today, but in its historical context, it has been well received in the field of non-Freudian psychiatry. In fact, in 1936, neurosurgeon Walter Freeman imported this type of procedure to the United States and, after giving it the name of lobotomy, he made it popular all over the world.

Freeman also made some procedural changes. After stunning the patients with electroshock, instead of piercing two points on the skull and inserting skewers through them, he used ice-like instruments which he inserted into the eye socket of the eye, between the eye and part of the skull. is, and removed by trying to “sweep” parts of the frontal lobes of each cerebral hemisphere.

As the sores did not reach the deepest part of the brain, vital structures were not damaged and in some cases patients barely noticed any changes during the first few hours. In any case, the nervous system of these people was marked forever, as well as the way they behave and live life.

Why was lobotomy popularized?

It’s hard to believe that the practice of lobotomies enjoyed a good reputation for a while, but the truth is it was.

After announcing his method, Freeman went on to perform over 2,000 lobotomies throughout his career. The practice of lobotomy quickly spread to all Western countries and came to be regarded as one of the most useful tools on which medicine could rely.

People who underwent voluntary or involuntary lobotomy were not only patients with serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia or severe depression; on many occasions this operation has been used to solve cases of behavior problems, disobedient teenagers, etc. Freeman’s method may have been brutal, but much of society was prepared to accept this brutality.

The idea of ​​breaking down the deeply rooted behavioral issues with a few sessions was very tempting. Additionally, if people with lobotomies were more “calm,” one could end conflict and relationship problems simply by focusing on an individual who needed to “change.”

The logic of this good reception by many health establishments is due to the mentality of hygiene which they maintained. In this age people with psychiatric disorders were crammed into cramped hospitals, And have often been victims of physical or psychological violence.

Lobotomy has made these types of problems less obvious, easier to ignore. The patients were still sick, but after the operation it was less obvious that they were there. The problem was solved in fiction, and in any case the alternative to this practice was also terrible.

The appearance of psychotropic drugs and the end of icebreaking

The popularity of lobotomies began to decline not because of a spontaneous awareness of the population, but because of a much less romantic event: the emergence of the first generations of psychotropic drugs for severe mental disorders, towards the mid-1950s.

Lobotomy promised an apparent quick solution to behavioral problems after a few sessions, a profession which, given the many problems it could solve (in the family, at work, etc.), came to fruition. however, psychotropic drugs were not only much more effective, But also its application was much simpler.

Likewise, when one of Freeman’s patients died from hemorrhage caused by the neurosurgeon, it became clear that the risks of a lobotomy were high. In the 1950s and 1960s, many countries banned this type of interventionAnd the USSR came to regard it as “contrary to human rights”.

Either way, the lobotomy had enjoyed such a good image that it took another twenty years to appear. The simplicity of the procedure (which could be carried out in less than 10 minutes) continued to make this measure an attractive option in the absence of monitoring of relatives or public entities.

Bibliographical references:

  • Cosgrove, G. Rees; Rauch, Scott L. (1995). Neurosurgery “Psychosurgery”. Clin. N. Am.
  • Martínez, Luis Antonio (2009). Regressive reconstructive therapy. Books online.

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