Howard Dully, photographed midway through his 1960 lobotomy. [Credit: Mo C., Flickr.com]
Transorbital lobotomy. A sort of clinical-sounding affair that amounted to nothing more than the insertion of a couple of ice picks into a hapless patient’s brain by way of the eye sockets. This odd scrap of medical lore is, for some, not simply a distant memory.
As late as the 1960s, Walter Freeman was dashing about the country in a Lincoln Continental he dubbed the lobotomobile, delivering a quick electric shock, then driving home the ice picks in more than 3,500 people (including, famously, Rosemary Kennedy). Freeman claimed, and many others agreed, that this procedure cured schizophrenics and depressives and all manner of mentally aggrieved people.
Howard Dully recently penned a wonderful and sad autobiographical account of his lobotomy at Freeman’s hand when Dully was but twelve years old. Poor Howard wasn’t particularly aggrieved himself, but his stepmother was likely bipolar and venomous to boot. So Howard went under the knife. Or orbitoclast, as Freeman preferred to call his kitchenware.
To be entirely fair, Freeman did not conceive of this unfortunate surgery. That distinction belongs to Egas Moniz, a Portuguese neurologist whose work was rewarded with a Nobel Prize in 1949. But Freeman took to transorbital lobotomy with an almost religious fervor and continued to defend the practice long after it fell into disgrace.
Medical history is littered with such sideshow oddities. Victorian-era anatomists stealing corpses for dissection. Delousing children with the pesticide DDT. To be sure, most pale in comparison to the ice pick lobotomy, which was voted the “worst idea on the mind” at a 2006 meeting of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Still, it’s hard not to wonder whether history might cast a similarly critical eye on the current state of medicine.
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