The history of the lobotomy, a medical procedure that involved entering a patient's brain and severing the connections between the front lobe and the remaining sections, is quite disturbing. How did lobotomies start? What were the differences before and after lobotomies? Doctors were influenced by the ancient practice of trepanation, in which holes were drilled into the skull for a number of ritualistic and medical reasons.
The first lobotomies were performed on animals in the 1890s and within 50 years, doctors were conducting early lobotomy procedures on mentally ill humans. In the 21st century, lobotomies are viewed as archaic and barbaric because history has seen the horrific aftermath. Oftentimes, patients were left as little more than drooling toddlers who struggled with daily tasks. Although the procedure did help some people, for the most part, lobotomy history shows that it did more harm than good.
Gottlieb Burkhardt, a doctor at a mental asylum in Switzerland, was inspired by the work of Friederich Golz, who removed parts of the brains of dogs to make them calmer. In 1892, Burkhardt decided to conduct a similar procedure on six patients in his asylum. All suffered from agitation and hallucinations. Burkhardt removed sections of their cerebral cortex in the hopes of curing them.
Although the complete results of his procedure (which didn't yet have a name) are unknown, the four who survived the operation were reportedly calmer. However, Burkhardt's experiments were viewed negatively in the medical community, so for 40 years, research into this new field of surgery was heavily frowned upon.
In the 1920s and '30s, a neurologist in Argentina named Antonio Egas Moniz fine-tuned a procedure that he called a leucotomy. It involved drilling holes in the front sections of the skull, then inserting a metal implement with a wire attached to demolish segments of the tissue in the frontal lobe of the brain. After this was completed, he poured a small amount of absolute alcohol into that part of the brain to kill any remaining live tissue.
His procedure was reportedly so successful (or so people believed at the time) that Moniz was awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1949.
American psychologist Walter Freeman took Moniz's ideas to a different level. Freeman simplified the procedure and renamed it the lobotomy. Instead of drilling holes into a patient's brain, he simply inserted an implement that resembled an ice pick into their eye sockets. This made recovery time faster, since there were no incisions. Also, rather than using Moniz's two-pronged approach of a leucotomy tool and alcohol, Freeman simply severed the connections between the front lobe and the rest of the brain.
This became known as a transorbital lobotomy, the procedure that most people associate with the word, "lobotomy."
Prior to the beginning of the WWII, there were over 400,000 people in mental institutions. During the early 20th century, most people with a mental illness were put into institutions. The lobotomy was designed to help the patients, specifically those with schizophrenia, depression, and compulsive disorders.
Once they were treated, they would either be able to function in regular society, be cared for by family, or be less of a hassle for the nurses and orderlies in the asylums.