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10 Strange Facts about Lobotomies

by Andrew Gestalt
fact checked by Rachel Jones

In man’s centuries-long quest to understand issues with the human brain, some scientists have chosen the more abrupt route—go at it with a scalpel. Thankfully, lobotomies are significantly more rare today. But for a time, they occurred at epidemic-level rates. While some studies showed temporary relief or help from different psychological conditions, the long-term effects were horrific.

Follow along as we explore the spine-chilling facts behind the history of lobotomies. One thing is for sure: After reading these, you’re going to have strong options about Dr. Walter Freeman.

Related: 10 Modern Medical Treatments That Might Surprise You

10 A Patient Died Because the Surgeon Wanted a Picture

Creepy Before And After Pictures Of People Who Underwent Lobotomies

Believe it or not, this actually happened to a patient at the Cherokee State Hospital in Iowa. This is just one of a very long line of offenses that Dr. Walter Freeman made in his attempt to cure the world of any mental health struggles via lobotomy.

In 1951, while performing a lobotomy procedure, Dr. Freeman stepped back to take a photograph during the surgery. When he did, the surgical instrument he was using, called a leucotome, accidentally sank deeper into the patient’s brain. This resulted in the patient’s death.

You have to wonder what was going through his head. Pics, or it didn’t happen? This man continued to perform these operations for another sixteen years. Just imagine Freeman being alive during the selfie culture.

9 Rosemary Kennedy Had One

The Tragic Story of The ‘Hidden Kennedy’ | Rosemary Kennedy, Forced to Have a Lobotomy

The Kennedy family has long been deemed American royalty. But even royal families have skeletons in their closets. In this case, it was a lobotomized relative that they kept locked away. Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, underwent a disastrous lobotomy procedure at the age of 23 on her father’s instructions.

Rosemary had been slower to develop as a child and experienced learning difficulties, though she was still able to participate in most family activities. However, after the family returned from living in London in 1940, her behavior began to change, and she became “increasingly irritable and difficult.”

Joseph Kennedy was persuaded that a lobotomy would help calm his daughter and prevent her sometimes violent mood swings. The relatively new lobotomy procedure involved severing connections in the brain. It was performed on Rosemary in 1941.

The lobotomy was an unmitigated disaster, leaving Rosemary permanently incapacitated with the mental capabilities of a two-year-old. She was unable to care for herself and was sent to live at St. Coletta’s School for Exceptional Children in Wisconsin, where she spent the rest of her life being cared for by Catholic nuns.

Rosemary’s siblings were initially kept in the dark about her condition and location for over 20 years. It was not until 1961, after John F. Kennedy became president, that the family publicly acknowledged what had happened to Rosemary. The details of the lobotomy were not made public until 1987.

8 Was Meant to Reduce Agitation

This is Why Lobotomy is the Worst Surgery in History

The lobotomy procedure was developed by Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz in the 1930s as a way to treat severe mental health conditions like psychosis, agitation, and anxiety. Moniz believed that by severing the connections between the frontal lobe and other regions of the brain, he could essentially “reset” the brain and reduce or eliminate agitation. The underlying theory was that a “physical malfunction” in the brain was causing these psychiatric symptoms and that cutting the nerve connections would force a kind of “reset” that would alleviate the issues.

Moniz and later Walter Freeman reported that many lobotomy patients showed reduced agitation, anxiety, and other disruptive behaviors after the procedure. This led to lobotomies being widely adopted in the 1940s as a “miracle cure” for mental illness, with the procedure being used to treat a range of conditions beyond just severe agitation.

However, the long-term effects of lobotomies were often devastating, with many patients becoming apathetic, incapacitated, or even dying as a result of the procedure. The benefits of reducing agitation were often short-lived or outweighed by the severe negative consequences.

7 Known as “Surgically Induced Childhood”

The Dark side of Science: The Lobotomy, the worst surgery in history? (Documentary)

If it’s possible, Freeman’s beliefs about the work he was doing were almost as disturbing as the procedures themselves. Almost.

Freeman believed the lobotomy procedure would reduce patients to a childlike state, with an “infantile personality,” and that this would then be followed by a period of recovery and maturation. He referred to this as “surgically induced childhood.” From his twisted perspective, it was an opportunity to reset the patient’s brain back to its factory setting so it could be shaped into what was socially acceptable.

His motto was “Lobotomy gets them home.” Reading about Freeman’s perspective almost makes you wonder if these surgeries were part of some secret cult. #conspiracytheory

6 Originally, There Wasn’t a Standard Method

Lobotomy: A Dangerous Fad’s Lingering Effect on Mental Illness Treatment | Retro Report

the lobotomy procedure evolved from open brain surgery to more targeted techniques using specialized instruments. The methods became increasingly simplified over time, culminating in Freeman’s controversial transorbital lobotomy. There was no single, standardized approach but rather a progression of different surgical techniques

The initial lobotomies in the 1930s involved open brain surgery, where the surgeon would remove parts of the frontal lobe or sever connections between the frontal lobe and thalamus. In the 1930s, neurologists like Moniz and Lima refined the procedure, creating instruments like the leukotome to disrupt the neuronal tracts more precisely.

In the 1930s, American neurologists Freeman and Watts developed the “Freeman-Watts procedure,” which laid out a specific protocol for inserting and manipulating the leukotome during the surgery. In 1945, Freeman streamlined the procedure further, replacing it with the “transorbital lobotomy,” where he would insert a pick-like instrument through the eye socket to sever connections in the brain.

Freeman’s transorbital lobotomy could be performed very quickly, sometimes in under 10 minutes, and did not require a full surgical team. Apparently, the trend for brain surgery was, “Let’s see if we can do this faster and riskier.”

What’s next—one hand tied behind your back?

5 Most Were Performed on Women

LOBOTOMY – Before and After, Female Patients. 1944

Women received a disproportionately high number of lobotomies compared to men. At Stockton State Hospital, 89% of standard/radical lobotomies, 77% of transorbital lobotomies, and 93% of multiple lobotomies were performed on women. In the early years of the lobotomy procedure, 5 out of the 6 patients in the initial case study by Freeman and Watts were women. By 1942, 75% of the lobotomies they had performed were on women. A 1951 study found that nearly 60% of American lobotomy patients were women, even though men significantly outnumbered women as psychiatric patients at the time.

This gender disparity was likely driven by the prevailing societal norms and expectations around “normal” female behavior at the time, which led doctors to view women as more suitable candidates for the lobotomy procedure.

4 Some Lobotomies Were Meant to Change Sexual Orientation

Military Gay Exploration, Lobotomy, & Electroshock Therapy | Beyond Stonewall | Smithsonian Channel

There is evidence that lobotomies were used in attempts to “treat” or “cure” homosexuality in mid-20th century America. However, the full extent of this practice is not clearly documented. At the time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness or “sociopathic personality disturbance” that some psychiatrists and doctors believed could be “cured” through lobotomy and other invasive procedures.

Dr. Freeman claimed that up to 40% of his patients were gay men whom he operated on in an attempt to change their sexual orientation. There are also reports that other doctors and institutions like the Atascadero State Hospital may have used lobotomies on homosexual patients in efforts to “treat” their sexuality. Lobotomies were often performed indiscriminately on a wide range of patients, including those deemed “deviant” for their sexual orientation.

3 Last Recorded Lobotomy in the U.S. Was in 1967

The Lobotomy Files: Inside the Mind of Roman Tritz

In February 1967, Dr. Freeman performed his final transorbital lobotomy procedure on Helen Mortensen. This was the third lobotomy that Freeman had performed on Mortensen. She had apparently had a relapse in psychiatric symptoms. Following the procedure, Mortensen suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage and died.

After Mortensen’s death, Freeman was banned from performing any further lobotomy operations. Thank goodness someone finally stopped this man.

By the 1950s, the dangers and side effects of lobotomies were becoming widely known, leading to increased scrutiny and the procedure falling out of favor. More refined psychosurgical procedures like cingulotomies are occasionally used today to treat certain mental health conditions.

In summary, the last recorded lobotomy was performed by Dr. Walter Freeman in 1967 on Helen Mortensen, which tragically resulted in her death and led to Freeman being banned from conducting the procedure any further. This marked the end of the widespread use of lobotomies as a psychiatric treatment.

2 A Literary Award Saved Janet Frame from Lobotomy

Janet Frame: Master of Words | Writers & Novelists Biography

Janet Frame was a renowned New Zealand author who was falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia and nearly underwent a lobotomy procedure as a result. In the 1940s, while Frame was a patient in a psychiatric hospital, it was announced that she had won a major national literary prize for her first book of short stories, The Lagoon. This accolade prompted the hospital staff to cancel the planned lobotomy procedure, as they felt it would be unwise to perform such a drastic operation on a talented young writer.

The search results indicate that lobotomies were sometimes used at the time as a “treatment” for mental illness and other conditions that were seen as deviations from the norm, including homosexuality. Frame’s case highlights the dangers and abuses of this controversial neurosurgical procedure.

After the cancellation of the lobotomy, Frame was eventually discharged from the psychiatric hospital and went on to become one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed and prolific authors, publishing numerous novels, short stories, and volumes of autobiography. Her experiences with the mental health system and the threat of lobotomy were a major influence on her writing.

1 Thousands of Military Veterans Were Lobotomized after World War II

‘Icepick Surgeon’ Did Over 2000 Lobotomies

The U.S. government lobotomized roughly 2,000 World War II veterans, primarily those suffering from mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, and psychosis. The VA (Veterans Administration) was overwhelmed with psychiatric cases from WWII veterans who were coming home with severe mental health problems that the VA was ill-equipped to handle.

At the time, there were very limited treatment options available, with therapies like electroshock, insulin shock, and hydrotherapy proving largely ineffective. Lobotomies were seen as a desperate measure to “cut mental illness out of the brain” and control violent or disruptive behavior in these veterans.

The VA performed these lobotomies despite the procedure, often leaving patients severely incapacitated. They often had reduced personality, intellect, and ability to function independently. An unknown number of these lobotomized veterans survived, with some dying shortly after the procedure. Surprise, surprise—the VA does not have complete records of this program.

fact checked by Rachel Jones