The pull for lobotomy

The Psychologist has a fascinating article by historian Mical Raz on what patients and families thought about the effects of lobotomy.

Raz looks at the letters sent between arch-lobotomist Walter Freeman and the many families he affected through his use of the procedure.

Contrary to the image of the ‘evil surgeon who didn’t care about the harm he was doing’ many patients and families gave warm and favourable feedback on the effects of the operation.

Even some very worrying details about the post-operative results are recounted in glowing terms. Freeman had every reason to suspend his disbelief.

What it does illustrate is how a damaging and useless treatment could be perceived as helpful and compassionate by Freeman and, presumably, other doctors because of how docility and, in some cases, genuine reduced distress were valued above the person’s self-integrity and autonomy.

An interesting and challenging article.

Link to ‘Interpreting lobotomy – the patients’ stories’.

3 thoughts on “The pull for lobotomy”

  1. Very interesting piece on the culture of the time and how people seemed glad of an escape from suffering whether it involved loss of individuality and even life. Thanks.

    Near where l live, in Fife, Scotland, there is still brain surgery for mental illness, NMD or neurosurgery for mental disorder, going on, in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, at the Advanced Interventions Service:
    They now call it an anterior cingulotomy and of course it is far more sophisticated with much better outcomes. However it bothers me that people still have to resort to brain surgery for mental ill health and lack of peace of mind.

    I’ve looked through their statistics and DAIS get about 10 times more referrals than what they actually perform operations on, and this includes from England and Ireland, with around 3-5 getting the operation yearly. They also offer talking intensive therapies and the main mental health conditions appear to be depression and OCD that hasn’t responded to ECT and psychiatric drugs.

    I think the main reason we still have NMD available is because of the biomedical model of mental illness. The premise that mental ill health is linked to brain stuff rather than mind and body stuff. I’m an unbeliever in “mental illness” although I do believe that people experience mental distress due to trauma and life’s difficulties.

    I’ve had 3 episodes of psychoses over my 61 years which were treated with hospitalisation and forced drug treatment. The drugs didn’t work with me and caused depression but I eventually managed to taper and get off them by myself. After my last menopausal psychosis in 2002 I was put on a cocktail of psych drugs and given a schizoaffective disorder label. I didn’t believe in the lifelong mental illness prognosis and after 2yrs got off the risperidone, venlafaxine (which caused me suicidal impulse and bone loss) and lithium.

    I made a complete recovery and remain in good mental health, now finding myself a writer, survivor activist and human rights campaigner in mental health matters.

  2. Thank you for this post. We are seeing a similar horror happening today with psychotherapy. Though less physically gruesome, it is emotionally gruesome (via its dehumanizing structure), and all the while clients (“patients”) warmly perceive it as helpful and compassionate.

    We can do better. Some further explorations are here:

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