Healthy Living

Lobotomies in Other Countries

Lobotomies in Other Countries

Key Takeaways

  • About 100,000 lobotomies were performed, including about 40,000 in the US. 
  • Lobotomies were performed in Grain Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, and Japan, as well. 
  • Lobotomies were sometimes used for the treatment of homosexuality. 

What is a lobotomy and why was it used?

A lobotomy is a neurosurgical procedure used for the treatment of various psychological conditions, such as severe depression, mania, schizophrenia, etc. It was even used for the treatment of homosexuality.

The idea of brain surgery started around 1890, when a German researcher, Friedrich Golz, removed portions of the brains of dogs and found them to be less aggressive and calmer after the procedure. His idea was followed by Gottlieb Burkhardt, who tried similar procedures on six of his patients diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was the head chief of a Swiss mental institution. Two of his six patients died, while four were calmer after the procedure.

The first lobotomy procedure that became the standard version of a lobotomy was attributed to Egas Moniz, a Portuguese neurologist. He first performed this procedure in 1935 in Lisbon at the Hospital Santa Marta. Moniz found that cutting the nerves which run from the frontal cortex to the thalamus brought about condition improvement. With his colleague Lima, he created a technique which consisted of drilling two holes on either side of the forehead. After the holes were drilled, special surgical knives, known as lobotomes, were used to sever the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex from the rest of the brain. They first called it leucotomy, even though it became known worldwide as a lobotomy.

He even received the Nobel Prize for his innovation in 1949.

In the US, Freeman and Watts were well-known lobotomists. Freeman was an American psychiatrist, and together with Watts he performed his first lobotomy in the US in 1936. He recommended lobotomy for the treatment of various medical conditions, including depression, neurosis, psychosis, criminality, and even homosexuality. 

Number of lobotomies performed

Although the procedure wasn’t developed in the United States, it was most prevalent in the US compared to the rest of the world. By the 1950s, when the procedure began to be outlawed and replaced with more humane procedures, there were already more than 100,000 lobotomies performed. Of this number, about 40,000 were performed in the US, while most of the rest were carried out in European countries, including Great Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Norway.

Considering that the procedure quickly became unpopular in the US in the early 1950s but still went on in European countries like Sweden, it is fair to conclude that the US had the greatest number of lobotomies performed in a year. This prevalence can be attributed to Walter Freeman, who first introduced the procedure in the US in 1936 after Egas Moniz published his positive results.

Walter Freeman later modified the procedure to create the transorbital lobotomy, which was much simpler than Moniz’s technique. He was also considered a showman, because he would perform almost 10 procedures in a day. He also traveled around the world to encourage and spread the use of the procedure. It is approximated that he single-handedly performed about 3,500 to 5,000 procedures, and he became the face of the lobotomy procedure.

When was the lobotomy abolished?

The use of lobotomy to treat chronic mental disorders had always been criticized from the get-go, but it was still performed for lack of an effective alternative. However, by the early 1940s, at the height of its popularity, it began to receive major criticism until 1950, when Vasily Gilyarovsky petitioned for the procedure to be banned. That year, the USSR became the first country to outlaw the procedure, and other doctors soon followed suit.

Soon thereafter, Germany and Japan also banned the procedure, but there were some European nations that still practiced the lobotomy procedure. Sweden, in particular, performed over 4,500 lobotomies between 1944 and 1966, long after the practice was widely frowned upon; worse still, most of these cases were performed on women and children.

By 1970, the lobotomy had become frowned upon throughout the world, but the US was not as progressive. Only some states in the US had abolished the use of lobotomies for treatment, but even by 1977, it was still being done in some states. In fact, a committee created by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 found that the lobotomy could have positive effects.

Why was lobotomy abandoned? First, because it was not a successful treatment. Many patients who were treated had no improvement at all. In addition to a lack of improvement, they lost their ability to perform many tasks and were in most of the cases unable to live on their own. They ended up in various institutions away from their homes and families until they died. Some of the patients even died soon after a lobotomy procedure. In 1967, Freeman was even banned to perform lobotomies, despite his supposed success. This occurred after a female patient died from a brain hemorrhage. Freeman performed a lobotomy for the third time in this patient, as he believed it was necessary to perform the procedure as many times as necessary until it was done correctly and the problem was resolved.

Another reason why lobotomies were abandoned was due to the development of medications such as antipsychotics and antidepressants, which seemed to be very successful for the treatment of various medical conditions like schizophrenia, depression, etc. Therefore, the lobotomy procedure became obsolete.

Modern psycho-surgery

Currently, it is illegal to perform a lobotomy in many countries, although not all countries have abolished the procedure altogether. Of course, you should not have a lobotomy at the moment, but there are still countries that don’t have a direct law abolishing the lobotomy. Modern technology in the form of X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as well as the increased knowledge of the functioning of the human brain, have allowed brain surgery to become more sophisticated and accurate, unlike inserting a metal spike into the brain and wiggling it around, as was done for a lobotomy.

As mentioned, lobotomies are illegal in most countries, and it is not performed anymore worldwide. However, some countries still don’t have a specific law about lobotomies being forbidden in their country.