Why ‘do no harm’ matters more than ever


lobotomies do no harm Walter Freeman James Watts

Lobotomy advocates Dr. Walter Freeman (left) and Dr. James W. Watts (right) [Photo by Harris A Ewing, Saturday Evening Post, May 24, 1941, Public Domain]

A recent Retro Report in The New York Times looked back at the tragic history of lobotomies to remind viewers of the importance of the medical ethics principle, “First, do no harm,” and how it applies to the development of medical technologies for the brain today.

The media positively covered lobotomies as a groundbreaking procedure able to cure mental illness when the surgical procedure first hit the medical scene in the 1930s. Dr. Walter Freeman, a major proponent of the procedure in the United States, was an adept self-promoter, and mental health professionals were in desperate need of treatments that actually worked.

The originators of the procedure, which involves severing connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1949, but controversy was already growing around the procedure because of the serious side effects in which people lost their personalities and abilities. The mental health profession started to turn away from lobotomies after the introduction of antipsychotic medications in the 1950s, but some including Freeman continued to push the procedure well into the 1960s. Surgeons lobotomized tens of thousands of people in the U.S. alone.

Neurosurgery’s dark history informs the researchers developing cutting edge treatments today, including neuromodulation and neurostimulation devices to treat seizures, depression and more.

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