Health Blog

The Cruelest Cut

December 11, 2008
Howard Dully, photographed midway through his 1960 lobotomy. [Credit: Mo C.,]
Howard Dully, photographed midway through his 1960 lobotomy. [Credit: Mo C.,]

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.

Also on Scienceline:

Who is winning the Nobel Prize these days?

More on the current state of medicine: video games used for therapy


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1 Comment

Alan Dove says:

You distract from an otherwise good article with a glaring error: delousing children with DDT was not an inherently bad idea. In fact, DDT saved tens of thousands of lives during World War II as a delousing agent, most famously during a winter typhus outbreak in Italy. Had this pesticide been restricted to that use, it would probably still be acceptable.

The problem with DDT isn’t its toxicity to humans – it’s actually far less toxic than most other pesticides – but that it’s a persistent environmental pollutant with disastrous consequences on ecosystems. Spraying DDT powder on someone to delouse them was good medicine, especially fifty years ago when there were no other effective treatments. Spraying DDT liquid over millions of acres of farmland to control agricultural pests, however, was a horrible mistake.

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