Lobotomy kitsIn one sense, lobotomy kits tell the story of the development of one of the first point-of-care surgeries. It was a simple procedure designed to be performed outside of a surgical field. Prefrontal lobotomies have a long and controversial history, but the transorbital process we consider today (an icepick through the eye socket) was first developed by Dr. Walter Freeman and Dr. James Watts in the 1930s.
Freeman’s goal was to make the prefrontal lobotomy available to those he saw as needing it most: patients in state mental hospitals that had no operating rooms, surgeons or anesthesia – and limited budgets. He wanted to simplify the procedure so that it could be carried out by psychiatrists in psychiatric hospitals. At first, the process was a welcome addition to mental health, if for no other reason than a vegetative patient is easier to handle than a hysterical one. The media also hailed it as a miracle cure, even as it faced strong criticism among medical experts.
However, the story of institutional lobotomies is also a story of a misunderstanding of women’s health. Freeman coined the term “surgically induced childhood” and used it constantly to refer to the results of lobotomy.
Every country that adopted the procedure saw higher rates of women being lobotomized, although black people, homosexuals and even children were frequent targets. During its popularity until the 1960s, surgeons lobotomized tens of thousands of patients – most of whom were women. In the U.S. alone 60% of the subjects were women. In Ontario, data show 74% of lobotomies from 1948–1952 were performed on women. Research from France, Switzerland and Belgium reveals that the surgical procedure was “alarmingly common for female patients” (84% of 1,340 subjects) from 1935–1985.
The process faced criticism and controversy because severing connections of the prefrontal cortex resulted in mixed results. Sometimes a patient lost personality and ability, although often the result was death. In the 1970s, there were allegations that such surgeries were used to control minorities and restrain individual rights.
The mental health profession started to turn away from lobotomies after the introduction of antipsychotic medications in the 1950s. Public support shriveled as transorbital prefrontal lobotomy became an archetypically frightening plot device in film and literature. Freeman famously and brashly continued to advocate for the procedure until this death.
Today, the legacy of the procedure stands as an important reminder of the ethical questions that need to be raised before medical treatments are adopted.