The History of Human Brain Surgery in Brain Research

Early Brain Surgery History

The thought of brain surgery and the correction of mental illness began around 1890, when Friederich Golz, a German researcher removed temporal lobes of his own dogs and found them to be less aggressive.

Around that same time, Gottieb Burkhard, the head doctor of a Swiss mental institution, did six similar surgeries on schizophrenic patients. Out of the six, two of the patients died , but the other four became calmer.

In 1935 a Yale doctor, Carlyle Jacobsen, performed lobotomies on chimps and found them to be calmer (Noble Lectures, 1964).

Antonio Egaz Moniz of the University of Lisbon Medical School was a medical researcher. He did contribute significant contributions to the brain x-ray techniques. He also contributed to the push towards lobotomies.

Moniz discovered that in cutting the nerves of the frontal cortex in psychotic patients, he could “short-circuit” part of the problem. This procedure consisted of drilling holes in the sides of the forehead of patients, then inserting a knife, then severing the prefrontal cortex from the rest of the brain (Sabbatini, 1997).

Most patients did not become calmer after this procedure. To his credit, Moniz did advise that the lobotomy should only be used in extreme cases when all other interventions had failed. He received the Noble Prize in 1949 for his work on the lobotomy, but he became paralyzed when one of his “lobotomy” patients shot him in the back (Boeree, 2001).

An American physician, Walter Freeman, was the person most responsible for bringing the lobotomy to America in 1936. He performed thousands of lobotomies and began a propaganda campaign to promote the surgery.

Freeman invented the “ice pick lobotomy”. He found that when he used an ice pick and inserted it above each eye of the patient with only a local anesthetic (sometimes only shock therapy) and then “drove it thought  the thin bone by tapping the pick with a mallet, swish it back and forth like a windshield wiper, pull the pick out, and the patient’s lobotomy was completed” (El-Hai,  2005).

Freeman claimed that the lobotomy could cure everything from psychosis, neurosis, depression, criminality, headaches, menstrual cramping, to “difficult children”. He developed an “assembly line type lobotomy”. He gave lectures to promote the lobotomy. 

Dr. Freeman tried to see if he could break his own lobotomy speed records. During his career he performed an estimated 3,500 lobotomies. It is important to note that the lobotomy was thought of as a miracle cure for mental illness at this time (El-Hai, 2005).


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