2K US Veterans Lobotomized in '40s, '50s

'WSJ' profiles Walter Freeman's medical legacy
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 13, 2013 11:44 AM CST
2K US Veterans Lobotomized in '40s, '50s
Dr. Walter Freeman, left, and his partner Dr. James W. Watts study an X-ray before a lobotomy in May 1941.   (Wikipedia Commons)

In the first detailed account of the Veterans Administration's psychosurgery program, the Wall Street Journal reveals the extent to which lobotomies were used on veterans in the 1940s and '50s, before antipsychotic drugs came on the market and public opinion dipped. Unearthed documents show how one of the "most controversial figures in American medical history," Walter Freeman—who made the ice-pick-through-the-eye, transorbital method famous and used lobotomies to treat "practically everything from delinquency to a pain in the neck," one VA memo notes—swayed the organization in favor of the procedure, despite the fact that only a third of patients were able to lead a "productive life" afterward.

After doctors saw Freeman perform a lobotomy in 1943, a VA report recommended the surgery be performed on veterans suffering from mental illnesses. The memo, which noted a lobotomy "does not demand a high degree of surgical skill," was approved. The US government went on to lobotomize some 2,000 veterans with Freeman in the lead, the WSJ notes. And while many at the VA had their doubts—in one case, Freeman posed for a photo op during surgery and penetrated too far into the patient's brain, killing the patient—the neurology division's chief wrote that if properly handed, the advantages "outweigh the disadvantages." The full piece is worth a look. (More lobotomy stories.)

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