Psychiatric medicine has grown by leaps and bounds in the last century, but it remains a relatively fresh branch of modern medicine. Today, practitioners, researchers and the FDA progress carefully when accepting new drugs or treatment strategies to the forefront, sometimes moving glacially slow. Any mention of a “cure-all” is dismissed as quackery.
There is are many reasons for such skepticism: chief among them is the tragedy of lobotomies, a procedure once practiced with horrifying efficiency at dozens of hospitals across the United States…including Indiana’s Logansport State Hospital.
In the early 1900s, a bevy of dramatic treatments were available to treat those suffering mental illness, from insulin therapy to electroconvulsive therapy. Few had any lasting benefits, and even those benefits outweighed the dangers involved.
Then, in 1949, the Nobel committee awarded a Portuguese neurologist the Nobel Prize for his advances in neurological surgery to treat certain types of mental illness. By then, this procedure, known as a lobotomy, had already become commonplace in the United States, with over 5,000 performed in 1949 alone.
And it was effective. Proponents touted it as a miracle surgery that reduced the complexity of modern life, inducing a surgically-imposed childhood. Even the most disturbed individuals would leave surgery calm, peaceful…and typically in a long-term daze. The procedure’s chief practitioner, a brash surgeon named Walter Freeman, traveled around the United States, demonstrating his techniques, including the use of the transorbital lobotomy using an orbiclast.
By careful inserting a heavy, needle-like chisel through the eye socket, a surgeon could now perform the lobotomy in an office-setting, even without anesthesia. Use of the procedure increased even more. By the late 1960s, 40,000 lobotomies would be performed in the US alone.
Not every doctor supported the procedure. Scattered protests at its inception turned into a consensus, but lobotomies continued largely on the support of a few, very prominent physicians, including Freeman. His exploits grew into events. He no longer wore gloves or a mask, would use two orbiclasts at once, and monstrously touted the procedure as a cure for homosexuality. Once, a patient even died because Freeman posed for a photo mid-procedure.
Although there’s little debate that Freeman himself was reckless, not only surgeons of that era can be included in his company. Some honestly thought it in the patient’s best interest. It’s easy in hindsight to call the practitioners of such a procedure monsters, but that’s always easy to do…in hindsight.
If you had stood in a crowded asylum in the early 20th century, full of patients abandoned by their families, without benefit of today’s psychiatric drugs, then such a quick and seemingly beneficial procedure might seem more palpable.