In 1935, Portuguese neuroscientist Dr. Egas Moniz pioneered a new procedure to treat symptoms of psychiatric illness. Using a thin instrument, a surgeon could sever the delicate neural connections between the frontal lobe and other parts of the brain. The procedure resulted in significant changes to the patient’s behavior. Despite a mixed reception by the medical community, Moniz received a Nobel Prize in 1949.
In the ensuing decades, the practice of transorbital lobotomies was championed by American psychiatrist Dr. Walter Freeman. He operated on over 4,000 patients and remained a fierce advocate for the procedure long after it fell into disrepute. While some patients seemed to be cured of their psychiatric distress, the main effect of lobotomies was the dismantling of the patient’s personality. According to Freeman’s own numbers, about 73% of his patients remained hospitalized for life or “in a state of idle dependency.” Another 5% died during the operation. Recently in The Washington Post, columnist Megan McArdle pointed to the history of lobotomies as a cautionary tale.