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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Lobotomists on BBC Radio Four

I have just listened to an excellent BBC radio programme on the history of the Lobotomy. Hugh Levinson, the producer and presenter, has written a BBC News article about the programme here.

The programme was about the short lived idea that patients living with mental illness could be cured if only the connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain could be severed. The operation (called a Leucotomy in Britain) involved drilling holes into the patient's skull just behind the eye sockets and below the temples, and then inserting a long spike, like an overly long ice-pick, into the brain to make cuts behind the frontal lobes. One commentator observed that the procedure contradicts the standard medical view that cutting healthy tissue tends to make things worse not better.

The programme featured three famous exponents of the procedure: Egas Moniz in Portugal, Walter Freeman in the States and Sir Wylie McKissock in the UK.

The Lobotomy was popular throughout the 1940s and into the '50s. The programme estimated, for example, that within that short period Sir Wylie McKissock carried out 3000 lobotomies. He would even tour provincial hospitals at the weekends operating on patients. Freeman also was an advocate of the procedure, even making a movie to advertise the benefits of the operation.

Shockingly there was no research done into the procedure and no follow up investigations to see how patients recovered after surgery. The Lobotomists convinced themselves that about a third of patients were helped by the surgery whilst the rest were no worse for it. There was no evidence for this and in fact many patients suffered catastrophic harm as a result of the treatment. With the discovery of anti-psychotic medication in the 1950s the practice faded. The history of medicine is full of such horrors.

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