Medical and Science

What is a Lobotomy and Can it Cure Depression

Lobotomy Madness by Mikamatto, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicensePhoto by  Mikamatto

Have you ever heard the term lobotomy? Most of us have heard this term before, but what is a lobotomy? And more specifically, can it cure depression?
Our lives are full of all sorts of mental disorders and diseases these days and most have been around for quite some time. Many of these were not discovered until the 20th century simply because the available technology did not exist before then to pinpoint them.
Depression is something that is quite common in many people’s lives today and is usually treated with medications or possibly therapy. But is it possible that a lobotomy could be a cure for depression? First we need to discuss exactly what a lobotomy is. In an earlier post, The Unorthodox Methods for Curing Mental Illness, we discussed many of the bizarre and quite frankly cruel methods that have been used over the ages to cure mental disorders. Lobotomies are probably not as unorthodox as some of those methods, but a bit unusual none the less.

What is a Lobotomy?

A lobotomy is a surgical procedure that is meant to treat patients for pain or emotional disorders. Treatments of this sort go back as far as 1848. It was in America where an Irish mine worker had an iron bar javelined into the front part of his head during an explosion that actually led way to lobotomies.


This accident naturally caused him a great deal of pain and was a very serious injury. But then doctors began to notice that after the accident, the patient, Phineas Gage, was experiencing a complete change in his personality. But unfortunately the changes were not good ones.


Before Gage’s accident he was thought of as a well liked, soft-spoken individual. He was a religious man and very well respected. But after his accident he became very impatient, fitful and down right disrespectful. He also began using a lot of profanity while talking to people. But it was his unfortunate personality changes that implied to doctors that a similar procedure could have great medical benefits.


Who Created the Lobotomy Procedure?

Walter Freeman, an American neurologist and psychiatrist is well known as the “father of the lobotomy”. Up until 1972 he had records of over 3,000 lobotomies that he’d performed during his career.


Freeman along with his colleague James Watts were pioneers in the field and carried out lobotomies on a huge number of patients with aggressive behaviors. The lobotomies were meant to calm the patients and cure their mental disorders.


According to Freeman, lobotomies worked due to the severing of nerves that were connected between the frontal lobe of the brain, and the thalamus. The thalamus is the portion of you brain where instructions are processed for things like sight, hearing, touch and taste.


Freeman believed that the thalamus was the main controlling factor when it came to processing emotions. It seemed logical simply because patients that exhibited aggressive behaviors apparently had too much emotion.


Most patients found their conditions had greatly improved after their lobotomy procedure, but it did come with some set backs. Many of them had to relearn simple tasks such as eating, using the bathroom and even how to dress themselves. It was also not uncommon for some patients to die shortly after having a lobotomy.


Can a Lobotomy Cure Depression?

The first lobotomy performed on a patient dealing with depression was in 1936, by Dr. Freeman himself. The lobotomy was performed on a 63 year old woman named Alice Hammatt. She was a chronic sufferer of depression and the procedure was a possible cure.


Freeman and his assistants drilled six holes into the top of Mrs. Hammatt’s skull during the operation. Then according to Freeman, Mrs. Hammatt came through the lobotomy with flying colors. So evidently a lobotomy was the right procedure for her depression.


There were a few scary methods that Freeman used to perform his lobotomies. One involved the patient lying flat with his or her eyes open. Then using only a local anesthetic an ice pick was inserted into the patient’s eye socket and tapped with a hammer until the bone was broken. Then they would push the tip of the ice pick about an inch and a half into the frontal lobe of the brain and wiggle it back and forth! Oh man, I would freak out if someone was doing this to me! If that wasn’t enough, then they would do the same thing in the other eye!


Here’s something I bet not everyone knows. John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary received a lobotomy from Dr. Freeman. Apparently she suffered from some learning difficulties and was quite a problem child. So her father Joe Kennedy consulted Freeman and of course he recommended a lobotomy, what else right? Some think that the young girl had begun to take notice of the boys and the Kennedy family was afraid she might embarrass them, so bust out the lobotomy ice pick! lol


But here’s the kicker. The lobotomy was a complete failure and it left her incapacitated. She became incontinent and was unable to speak more than just a few words. She wound up spending most of her days staring blankly at the walls. She remained this way until her death at the age of 86. During her lifetime she was never without the need for special care. Lobotomy side effects can be devastating, at least she got lucky and survived. Although some may argue she got the short end of the stick, when death sadly would of been the better option.


Rosemary wasn’t the only disaster under Freeman’s belt. In 1967  he performed a lobotomy on another female patient where he accidentally severed a blood vessel and she died three days later from hemorrhaging.


After a few failed attempts and a couple of disasters, Freeman’s career came to an abrupt hault. Dr. Freeman eventually died at the age of 76 from cancer.

So is a lobotomy the miracle cure for depression? Well, I don’t think anyone can say for sure, but lobotomies are definitely not without risk. I think taking medications and visiting a therapist once a week sure beats having an ice pick jammed into your eye sockets. So I can with great certainty tell you I would not recommend a lobotomy for depression. How do you feel about all this, would you be the next candidate for the ole ice pick?

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26 thoughts on “What is a Lobotomy and Can it Cure Depression
  1. Thanks sir its nice post i able to know little more about lobotomy and i don’t think it may always cure any kind of problem in few cases it happened but not all .

    1. You’re quite right Ashutosh, lobotomies appeared successful in the earlier days of its discovery, but they weren’t always successful. Something that’s so unpredictable doesn’t have a place in the medical field as far as I’m concerned.

  2. Hmmm.. I have quite controversial feelings about the topic. To cure depression with lobotomy? Never heard about it but I woudn’t be very happy after such procedure…. I guess this topic needs some deeper research.. Thanks for the food for reflection)

    1. Absolutely Evan. I think the earlier stages of medical advances paved the way for more humane and suitable treatments over the years. My main point was to illustrate how such extreme practices failed miserably in years past. I think lobotomies are an extremely dangerous procedure and should not be used to treat any condition. There’s a reason we have such a thick protective shield over our brains. Doctors back then were quite barbaric and had very little working knowledge of what they were messing with. Medical science should be based on fact not experimentation, at least where living creatures are concerned!

  3. Very Interesting.
    I personally think using a surgery for getting rid of depression is not a great idea!
    Change of scenery, picking up a hobby, playing some sport etc. usually are good options.
    Ultimately one cannot get rid of depression if they dont make an effort to cheer themselves up!

    1. lol, that’s probably true Rummy. The more one focuses on depression, the more it may consume your life. Replacing the thoughts of feeling down with activities is a great way to build positive feelings. Thanks for the input!

    2. I think the same, I’ve always believed that depression was a complicated disease to deal with, and that everything could be fixed if the right persons were around the patient.

      Having said that, I’ve got a family member that can’t go through it 🙁

      1. I’m sorry to hear about your family member. Depression is a very difficult condition to deal with, not only for the patient, but for their family as well. But you’re right about being around the right people, positive attitudes go a long way. 🙂

  4. I believe that should be more common sense about emotional disorders, lobotomy is like hitting your computer because a program or application is not working fine, in such case the technician just reinstall or reconfigure the system to solve the issue. Emotional disorders are not solved hitting your brain you need to determine the cause looking into your emotions, beliefs, painful experiences, etc. I’m not a pshycologist but I think that there should be more research to understand our inner software called mind. Regards 🙂

    1. Very well put jlqm1976! Seems everyone wants to find a miracle procedure or quick fix cure for mental illness instead of dealing with the things that initiated it. The mind is such a complex thing and is capable of so much more than given credit for. A little step back and analyzing ones self can go a long way wouldn’t you say?

  5. Hi Robert, here you mention lobotomy procedure that is very scary but about I think no one Know about this type of procedure so I want please elaborate this topic. And thanks for sharing with me it is really very interesting topic.

    1. Lobotomies are not exactly a common procedure these days thank God. But in their time it was quite the advancement in mental disorders, so they thought. :S

    1. Ohh, Moda, don’t be depressed… Keep your head up, things aren’t always as bad as they seem. A lobotomy would sure make things worse in my opinion!

  6. With all of the recent developments in the identification of which brain regions are responsible for particular actions and the developments in precise laser surgery I wonder if some form of lobotomy will return with greater efficacy

    1. I definitely would not doubt it. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day soon they were doing brain transplants. With all the developments in Stem Cells, seems anything is possible.

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