Throughout the history of medicine, there have been few surgical practices more barbaric and cruel yet sometimes surprisingly helpful than the lobotomy. Famous lobotomy patients range from children of politicians and English lords to singers who were on their way to stardom before finding themselves waylaid by mental illness. The personality, memory, and IQ of lobotomy patients before and after surgery varies wildly, and doctors were not able to fully understand what was happening and why. These true stories about lobotomy patients are at times emotionally draining, but a few of them also reveal an unexpected beacon of light.
When you think about the worst things that happened to lobotomy patients, it’s hard to decide which nightmare scenario is worse. When it comes to reading true stories about people that received a lobotomy, it's a bit like playing a twisted game of "would you rather?" So, while you read this collection of stories about people who went under the knife to have their brains fiddled with, consider all of the possible outcomes of this strange and dangerous surgery.
When Rosemary Kennedy was born, the medical community was still decades away from understanding dyslexia and other learning disabilities. The little sister of John F. Kennedy, Rosemary was misunderstood by her parents who struggled with her deficient cognitive skills.
Her father, Joe Kennedy, consulted the Psychology Department at Harvard University, where doctors evaluated Rosemary and concluded that she was developmentally disabled. Her father consented to his daughter's frontal lobotomy when she was 23 years old. It was thought he was afraid his daughter might embarrass him and his son and hurt their chances in politics. She erupted into aggressive tantrums when she didn't get what she wanted.
In November 1941, Dr. Walter Freeman performed the surgery with Dr. James Watts, and they sliced away at the young woman's frontal lobe until the left side of her body was partially paralyzed.
After the surgery Rosemary was sent off to a mental institution where she had to relearn how to brush her teeth, walk, and dress herself. The bubbly and sometimes volcanically angry young woman was replaced with someone who was unable to talk.
In 2018, People published never-before-seen letters from Rosemary before she was lobotomized. The letters were addressed to her caretaker, Dorothy Smyth, an Irish woman who cared for Rosemary for a month-long period when she was 20. Rosemary recounted her adventures in Europe to Smyth, and she ended her letters with sign-offs like "Best Love from your darling Sweetheart."
The older sister of Tennessee Williams, Rose was schizophrenic and described by her playwright brother as one of the sweetest, most genuine people he ever knew. In his memoirs, Williams notes that when Rose would go on a date, she “would talk with an almost hysterical animation which few young men knew how to take.”
In 1926, Rose wrote a letter to her grandmother describing her depression:
I don’t know what was the matter with me except that I was so nervous that I couldn’t hold the glass to take my medicine in. I stayed in bed all day long and had a big dose of calomel and I feel better but still weak. I just had finished a music lesson, and Miss Butell nearly drove me wild. It makes me nervous as a cat.
By 1943, Rose was beginning to lash out during manic episodes and agreed to undergo a frontal lobotomy. The surgery seemed to reduce Rose to a nearly catatonic state. She remained institutionalized, albeit in a swanky institution thanks to her brother's fortune. In a post-surgery letter she wrote to Tennessee, she said, "I want some black coffee, ice-cream on a chocolate bar, a good picture of you, Your devoted sister, Xxx Rose. P.S. Send me one 1 dollar for ice cream.”
Alys Robi was once described as "Canada's answer to the renowned Latin singer and dancer, Carmen Miranda" because of her high-voltage renditions of Tico Tico, Besame Mucho, and You Belong to My Heart. Her obituary describes her as being an alluring, temperamental woman with magnetic eyes, but in 1952, she was sent to a mental institution following a car accident that left her mentally scarred and sent her into wild mood swings. Robi then received an alleged unwanted lobotomy.
A young man only known by the initials "H.M." was hit by a cyclist and cracked his skull. From that injury, he began suffering seizures that lasted for around 40 seconds at a time. H.M. sought out Dr. William Scoville, a man who was experimenting with “fractional” lobotomies, which eliminated less tissue and supposedly allowed patients to keep their original personalities.
On September 1, 1953, Scoville used a hand crank and drill saw from a local hardware store to remove a bottle cap’s worth of bone from above each one of H.M.'s eyes. He then removed a few key parts of H.M.'s brain. After the surgery, H.M. only suffered about two seizures a year (a vast improvement), and his IQ jumped from 104 to 117, but he couldn't form any new memories.
H.M. was forced to move back in with his parents where he performed odd jobs, despite having to ask multiple times what it was he was doing. It was later discovered that due to the loss of his hippocampus, H.M.'s brain began to understand time differently. According to Sam Kean: "Five minutes lasted, subjectively, just 40 seconds for him; one hour lasted three minutes; one day 15 minutes."
H.M. passed in a nursing facility at the age of 82 from respiratory failure, and his brain was removed immediately following his passing. H.M.'s brain was shaved into 2,401 slices, each of which was mounted on a glass plate and photographed at 20x magnification to form a digital, zoomable map down to the level of individual neurons.