Mental Health

Were People Able to Live a Normal Life After a Lobotomy?


What is lobotomy?

Today, lobotomy is considered to be a barbaric procedure, and no one would want to have it performed on them or a loved one. This procedure did more harm than good, and that is why it was abolished and made illegal worldwide. However, at the beginning, the procedure was praised as a breakthrough procedure to treat mental disorders such as schizophrenia, severe depression, mania, etc. Homosexuality was "treated" with lobotomy, as well. Its inventor Egas Moniz even received the Nobel Prize in 1949.

What were lobotomies used for?

The lobotomy procedure was invented to help deal with certain mental disorders like schizophrenia, depression, mania, and catatonia. Later on, it was used by extremists as a political tool to cleanse rebels and by religious sects to cure homosexuality.

However, by 1950, the medical world found that the procedure was largely ineffective in treating these conditions, and actually had more adverse effects than benefits.

How did the procedure become so popular if it was not effective?

The first lobotomy procedure was performed in 1935 by Egas Moniz and his assistant Pedro Lima, and they did several more such procedures in the subsequent weeks. After operating on 20 patients, he published his findings stating that 7 patients had shown significant improvements, another set of 7 had shown slight improvements, and the rest were unchanged. A report of 14 successful operations out of 20 was a good result, and that was good enough by the medical standards at the time.

Soon, lobotomy as a treatment procedure for various psychological disorders became popular, even reaching the US in 1936. In the US, two neurologists, Freeman and Watts, were amazed by the Moniz discovery. They even made some slight changes to the initial procedure invented by Moniz, thereby developing the prefrontal lobotomy, as well. They even invented the orbitoclast, which was similar to the leucotome used in a typical lobotomy. Freeman started performing many lobotomies throughout the US. He even managed to perform about 3,500 to 5,000 lobotomies by himself. In the US, more lobotomies were performed than anywhere else in the world. It has been estimated that about 50,000 lobotomies were performed in the US until 1950, when the procedure started to be abandoned as a successful treatment option. Thanks to Freeman and his work, lobotomy started to become popular across the globe.

In most cases, though, it was the patient’s family who consented to their children or wives having lobotomies performed on them. Some of the mental conditions that would be treated by a lobotomy, such as schizophrenia and mania, would force the person to be confined in a padded cell or a straight-jacket. Considering that these were lifelong conditions, a cruel procedure like the lobotomy was considered tolerable and even humane.

The actual effects of lobotomies

The irony in the use of lobotomies to treat mental disorders is that it rarely worked, despite being very popular. What was seen as an effective treatment was actually just a reduction of mental capacity. By reducing the connections within the brain, the individual would have fewer mental capabilities, thereby preventing them from normal mental activities.

Of all patients treated through a lobotomy, only a few were able to return to their normal lives with minimal mental deficiencies. Most patients would suffer diminished mental capacity, causing them to become less responsive, less self-aware, or have inadequate self-control. The patient would often be unable to maintain a train of thought, interrupting conversations with different topics.

There was also a marked reduction in inhibition, and the patients would indulge in various unusual and harmful activities. For example, there were cases of people gaining weight because they would eat food whenever it was placed in front of them, despite not being hungry. There were also people who became sexually promiscuous. Some would later commit suicide, even after showing signs of improvement. 

In the worst cases, a patient would completely lose control of their bodies, and a famous case was that of Rosemary, John F. Kennedy’s sister. She had had a lobotomy at the age of 23, because her parents claimed she was hyperactive, and she ended up being incontinent. She could hardly speak or control her bodily functions, often daydreaming for hours on end. At that time, when her father, gave consent for the procedure, Freeman had only performed about 60 lobotomies in total. Rosemary Kennedy lived until the age of 86 when she passed away from natural causes in a house for disabled people, where she lived most of her life after the lobotomy procedure.

Another case that was not successful was the one of Howard Dully. Dully was only 12 years old when Freeman performed a lobotomy on him in 1960. His stepmother wanted to change his personality, even though he was not mentally ill. This is the reason he received a lobotomy and ended up in an institution for about 10 years.

In 1940, Beulah Jones was lobotomized by Freeman due to schizophrenia. She lost her higher intellect, long–term memory and was barely able to read, sit down, or perform many daily simple tasks.

In 1953, Anita McGee was lobotomized by Freeman for postpartum depression. She spent the rest of her life in institutions, as the procedure did not turn out well for her.

The last lobotomy performed by Freeman was in 1967. The patient passed away due to a brain hemorrhage. She was being lobotomized for the third time due to severe depression. After this procedure, Freeman was banned from performing lobotomies in the future. He continued to believe that the lobotomy as a neurosurgical procedure was a success and even continued to visit his patients until he died in 1972 of cancer.

As mentioned before, it appears that lobotomy was not a successful treatment. Most of the patients on whom this surgical procedure was performed ended up worse than they were before the procedure. In general, they have lost many abilities and barely managed to live on their own. Most of the patients on whom lobotomy was performed ended up living in various institutions far away from their families. Many of them lived for many years after the lobotomy, dying from natural causes, but many of them lived lives that were not fulfilling.