A Case of Hysteria

This Lobotomy Won't Hurt A Bit

In 1888, Swiss physician Gottlieb Burckhardt found that some insane asylum patients became calmer when parts of their brains were surgically removed. Treating neurological issues in the operating room began in earnest in the 1930s, when doctors Walter Freeman and James Watts performed the first prefrontal lobotomy in America on Kansas housewife Alice Hood Hammatt. The two widely promoted the surgery’s benefits, although in 1941 they botched a procedure on Rosemary Kennedy, rendering her an invalid. Freeman later refined the infamous transorbital or “ice pick” lobotomy, in which the patient was anesthetized by electric shock, and a sharp instrument was hammered into the brain through the eye sockets. The pick was then manipulated back and forth, severing connections in the prefrontal cortex. By the end of the 1940s, lobotomies were being performed at medical institutions across the country, mostly on women. One husband of a patient vouched for the operation’s success by declaring her “more normal than she had ever been.” In 1954, a new antipsychotic drug named Thorazine quickly became the preferred treatment for psychoses.

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