The history of lobotomy in the VA

A couple years ago, I read Jack El-Hai's brilliant book about lobotomy popularizer Walter Freeman — the man who lobotomized Rosemary Kennedy and traveled the country lobotomizing thousands of Americans with an ice pick. Now, at the Wall Street Journal, Michael Phillips has a big feature about Freeman and the influence he had on mental healthcare in the Veterans Administration. It's a chilling and important long read.

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  1. Lobotomies, Electro-Convulsive Therapy, massive doses of untested pharmaceuticals; just a few of the destructive toys in their box. Like a precocious child trying to fix a watch with a hammer.

  2. If only psychiatry's sorry state were the result of some sinister cabal withholding the treatments that actually work for cartoonishly evil purposes of some sort, a problem that could be resolved just by shooting a few people, rather than a ghastly mess of research...

  3. There was an incredibly disturbing PBS documentary some years ago about Walter Freeman and his icepick lobotomies. It left me in disbelief that anything like that was ever considered okay.

  4. aeon says:

    Back when I was a medical student and doing nursing assistant shifts to pay my way, I did a summer job in an old, sprawling, Victorian era lunatic asylum —by then renamed as a psychiatric hospital.

    One of the patients on a male psychogeriatric ward had been incarcerated as a youth in the early 20th Century, as he had been deemed insane rather than criminal after a minor robbery. Shortly after admission (in an attempt to escape) he'd bashed a nurse on the head with a shovel during 'occupation therapy' in the garden and made a run for it. So 6 people dragged him back, pinned him down and a psychiatrist performed an "emergency" trans-orbital lobotomy on him in a side room of the very same ward that he ended up in as an old man. And thus condemned him to a lifetime as a mumbling, shambling shadow of a human being, institutionalised until his death.

    Not an uncommon story, sadly, but just to point out that the results of Walter Freeman's nasty little procedure are still in living memory … frowning

  5. The idea that massive disruption of the frontal cortex is a good plan is pretty disturbing. The notion that you can avoid basically all bone damage and considerably speed healing by going in through the eye socket is a perfectly logical optimization of a bad idea.

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