November 28, 2022

The tragedy of the lobotomized GIs

Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself that bioethicists are good guys to have around if your doctor is thinking about using you as a guinea pig for a novel medical treatment. For instance, they would have been useful after World War II when doctors in the US Veterans Administration lobotomized at least 1,900 military men (and a few women).

Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself that bioethicists are good guys to have around if your doctor is thinking about using you as a guinea pig for a novel medical treatment. For instance, they would have been useful after World War II when doctors in the US Veterans Administration lobotomized at least 1,900 military men (and a few women).

Lobotomies became less popular after the first major antipsychotic drug, Thorazine, became available in the mid-1950s. This revolutionised care for the mentally ill. But, before then, with so many patients suffering from “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”, military doctors resorted to the popular procedure. In 1949, António Egas Moniz, a Portuguese doctor, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for developing the lobotomy. An American disciple, Walter Freeman, turned it into an assembly line technique. In the peak year, 1949, 5,000 lobotomies were performed in the US.

The Wall Street Journal is running a series on the military lobotomies. It really is sensational.

One of the villains is Dr Freeman. Although he was a psychiatrist, not a surgeon, he developed a technique which involved inserting an ice pick in patients’ eye sockets to access the brain. Sometimes he removed brain tissue for research. He worked without gloves or a mask. Even at the time, VA doctors questioned the brazenness of his cowboy techniques.

The families of the men were not well-informed of the outcome of the radical psychosurgery. “Many learned too late, however, that lobotomy could be a mixed blessing,” says the WSJ. “The operation might reduce a patient’s violence and angst, but it could also leave him forever scrubbed of personality and stripped of independence.” Many patients did not improve, ending up as docile hulks, like McMurphy, a patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Michael Cook
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