Samantha Greene Woodruff

Samantha Greene Woodruff

1. People may have suspected a connection between the physical brain and emotional behavior as far back as the Stone Age.

Archeological findings from the prehistoric era indicate early healers used craniotomy as a treatment for the ill. By the Renaissance, “trephination” (drilling into the skull) was a well enough recognized practice for painter Hieronymus Bosch to make it the subject of his 1494 painting “Cutting the Stone” (alternately called “The Extraction of the Stone of Madness,”) which shows a man in the middle of a field while his head is being drilled. The first modern experimentation with what would come to be called “psychosurgery,” was done in the late 1800’s by Swiss psychiatrist Gottlieb Burckhardt, who cut portions of the frontal lobes of psychotic patients. It didn’t catch on until nearly 50 years later.

2. Before lobotomy, there was leucotomy; a treatment pioneered by Portuguese Neurologist Antonio Egaz Moniz.

In the mid-1930s, Moniz, inspired by Burkhardt’s work, hypothesized that mental ailments like psychosis, extreme depression and anxiety were caused by faulty connections in the brain. Using a needle-like instrument (called a leucotome) he cut through specific white matter in the brain, permanently altering the behavior of his subjects.

3. The word lobotomy was coined by American neurologist and psychiatrist Walter Freeman II in 1936.

Freeman admired Moniz and was anxious to bring his leucotomy to the United States. He and his neurosurgical partner, James Watts, modified the procedure and re-named it lobotomy, to represent more accurately what they were doing – cutting into the frontal lobe. Freeman and Moniz had a strong professional relationship throughout their careers. In fact, Moniz won the Nobel Prize for pioneering the leucotomy after being nominated by Freeman.

4. Walter Freeman II was a showman; he performed lobotomies in front of large audiences and used shocking techniques to make them as entertaining as possible.

Freeman was apparently intentionally outlandish in his surgeries, sometimes lobotomizing both sides of the patient’s brain at once using carpenter’s mallets in both hands, and blithely using his patient’s stomach as an instrument tray. His surgical demonstrations were supposedly so compelling that they were often date night activities for his neurology students.

5. Freeman didn’t believe in sanitary surgical conditions.

Later in his career, when Freeman was performing lobotomies en masse, he expressed annoyance about “all that germ crap” getting in the way of broad and speedy application of his treatment.

6. The 10-minute “ice pick” lobotomy was real, and Freeman invented it.

Freeman’s primary goal was to scale lobotomy. He wanted to make it available to as many people as possible, as cheaply as possible. This led him to try entering the brain through the eye socket, instead of drilling through the skull, turning a hospital surgery into a “simple” office procedure. Freeman was not a surgeon, but believed the procedure was simple enough that he could perform it on his own, anywhere. Apparently the first few lobotomies he performed this way were done with an actual ice pick, from his freezer. Eventually he developed his own special tool and travelled the country lobotomizing dozens of people a day, leading his daughter to dub him “the Henry Ford of psychiatry.”