Now, in the 21st century, we are still only beginning to understand that psychological health is as important as physical health. Yet even today, individuals with psychological disabilities and issues which cannot be observed under a microscope and are hard to quantify are treated with much disdain and met with ridicule.
However, the topic we’re about to dive into today is one that could chill you to the bone. A medical procedure that was all but legal a mere 100 year ago that not only left a lasting impression on how we deal with modern psychological health today but also left a serious mark on the lives of the thousands of men, women and children who were subject to the barbaric technique of lobotomy or psychological sedation as i like to call it.
A lobotomy was categorized as a medical procedure where an instrument that closely resembled an ice pick was carefully inserted into a person’s prefrontal lobe via their eyes. Sound gruesome enough? Well, it gets way worse. The modern lobotomy has it’s origins in ancient Greece, Asia and South America where a procedure called Trephination which according to Dr. William Osler as cited in an article, “was done for epilepsy, infantile convulsions, headache and various cerebral diseases believed to be caused by confined demons to whom the hole gave a ready method of escape.”
Sounds absolutely medieval right? Surprisingly, the history of our relatively modern form of psychosurgery actually stems from American psychiatrist, Dr. Walter Freeman who in 1936 reinvented the concept from a Portuguese neurologist called Antonio Egas Moniz and made it more “efficient” and quicker. The effects or rather side effects of this form of psychosurgery were however positively harrowing and as per Dr Elliot Valenstien who wrote a book on the issue, “Some patients seemed to improve, some became ‘vegetables,’ some appeared unchanged and others died.”
The surgery itself only seemed to have a 50% chance of success with the other 50 leading to a complete and utter loss of one’s personality, identity and a drastic decrease in quality of life. So, what was the logic behind this controversial procedure that led to Moniz receiving a Nobel Prize? Well, according to an NPR article, “Freeman believed that cutting certain nerves in the brain could eliminate excess emotion and stabilize a personality.”
The procedure became an instant success at a time where medical health practitioners had no idea what to do with mental disorders such as Schizophrenia, Depression, Hysterical Paralysis and even Insomnia. However, the question that comes to mind instantly is, if there was a 50% chance that a patient would lose all cognition and become a lifeless entity, why did so many people consent and opt for the procedure? The answer is simple. Having a psychological disorder was not only taken as a serious taboo in American society but also meant that these individuals performed no function in society. The alternative to the surgery was a long, arduous and dehumanizing process of admission into a psychiatric ward or mental asylum which was both scary and meant the end of a person’s social standing.
Lobotomies however, presented an “easy” way out. With a 10 minute and relatively painless surgery, erratic and potentially dangerous patients became amicable and easier to maintain. This is where the gendered aspect of the controversial medical procedure comes in. Women were lobotomized in far greater numbers than men as per a study on this extreme gender disparity which showed that 84% of test subjects were female. So, why was this the case?
Turns out lobotomies not only altered an individual’s personality but also rendered them child like and therefore much easier to manage. Many patients reported that they had opted for the surgery because it had made them happier than they had been in ages and their worries had magically disappeared. This gender disproportion has been linked to the fact that it was in fact women who were diagnosed with depression and mania more than men which made them better candidates for the procedure. However, this also stems from the excessive need to sedate and tranquilize outspoken and opinionated women who were depressed because of the pressures of the household.
In a research article by Moniz himself, he describes the case of a woman from Lisbon who was deeply unhappy about having to relocate to the Congo with her husband. When she became to depressed to function, her husband sent her back to Lisbon where a lobotomy was performed on her and according to the doctor she was finally cured. Where as the truth is that the woman’s circumstances and experiences had caused her to become depressed and paranoid.
This obsession with well behaved and “happy” women is interestingly not the only reason why they were the ideal candidates for the procedure. Lobotomy survivors that were apparently “cured” were never really the same ever again, that is if they did not become catatonic vegetables with no will of their own. As per an article by the BBC, according to Dr Marsh, a renowned British neuroscientist, “If you saw the patient after the operation they’d seem alright, they’d walk and talk and say thank you doctor. The fact they were totally ruined as social human beings probably didn’t count.”
Therefore it was easier to render women childlike and harmless as they simply went back to the safety of their homes whereas men had to go out and work in a much more serious social setting. Although the procedure was banned in the 1960’s after one of Freeman’s patients had a hemorrhage and died, we realize that around the world women are still “lobotomized” and suppressed in many other ways.