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Lobotomies for All

How could the entire modern medical profession get behind and approve of a procedure for over 30 years that involved sticking an ice pick through your upper eye sockets, into your brain, and rotating it?

Amazingly, it did, from the 1930s until the 1960s.

Marketed as a “cure all” for psychosis, depression, or any other troublesome behavior, it’s no wonder it worked:

His operation severed the frontal lobe from the thalamus, the repository of emotions and the site where Freeman believed mental illness originated.

Ouch. It’s the same story we’ve heard before — doctors wanting to do something, because they believe any kind of action is better than no action at all. We see that is not always the case.

A few patients and their families claimed lobotomy was beneficial, especially in reducing agitation, which was Freeman’s measure of success. But others died on the table or were left irreparably damaged: childlike, docile, vacant and incontinent. Among them was Rosemary Kennedy, the 23-year-old mildly retarded sister of John F. Kennedy, who spent 56 years of her life in an institution after Freeman operated on her in 1941.

Undaunted by his failures, Freeman’s pitch that lobotomy cured mental illness was seized on by the press — the Washington Star called it among “the greatest innovations of this generation,” and the New York Times pronounced it “history-making.”

Thankfully, we have a lot more safeguards in place today to protect people from such extreme surgical procedures. And yet, we find ourselves still warehousing human beings in our society, because it’s too difficult (or, more accurately, too costly) for anyone to actually care.

As I was reading this article, I was thinking, “Yeah, this could never happen in today’s society. We’d never conduct experimental procedures or give people unapproved drugs for treatment.”

Then I read the end of the article:

While several of his relatives appear on camera, one of the most affecting interviews is with Berkeley bus driver Howard Dully, who was lobotomized by Freeman at age 12 after his stepmother complained he was difficult.

It makes you wonder whether today’s parents who have similar complaints about their “difficult children” aren’t walking down the same path… Except instead of an ice pick, the treatment of choice is psychiatric medications, whose long-term effects on children is largely unknown, and whose use in children is mostly done without FDA approval.

The Washington Port has the full story, ‘Lobotomist’ Serves as a Warning.

Lobotomies for All

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Lobotomies for All. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 15 Jan 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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