When JFK’s sister Rosemary Kennedy died last month, the
accompanying obituaries typically re-told the story about
Joseph Kennedy’s decision to have his unruly, mildly retarded
daughter lobotomized. The operation failed and Rosemary’s mind was
reduced to that of an infant’s.
More than 60 years later, cases like Rosemary’s shock the
collective conscience. It’s assumed that the procedure is a relic
of medical history, eliminated with the advent of anti-psychotic
drugs. For patients who don’t respond to drug treatment, however,
the lobotomy is sometimes used as a last resort.
In an article published by This Magazine, author
Danielle Egan writes that the lobotomy — also known as
psychosurgery — was introduced in the 1930s, re-emerged in the
1970s, and is
once again in vogue. And just as the procedure has reappeared,
so has the accompanying controversy.
The serious side-effects — zombie-like apathy, aggressiveness,
depression, fatigue — remain the same, as do the fault lines that
define the medical community’s opinion of the procedure. Proponents
hold fast to the idea that the source of mental illness is in the
organic structure of the brain and can be cut out. Skeptics say
mental illness can be traced to psychological trauma in a patient’s
past and argue that behavioral therapy is superior to surgical
solutions, which are both invasive and scientifically suspect.
Egan is a skeptic, but does not dismiss the psychological
devastation that drives both doctors and patients to turn to
radical measures. What most concerns her is that patients are not
fully apprised of the operation’s risks and that in some cases
doctors are forsaking their Hippocratic Oath in the name of
All told, though, there are far fewer lobotomies performed today
than in Rose Kennedy’s day. In Jack El-Hai’s new biography, The
first chapter you can read
online), readers are taken back to the time when Dr. Walter
Freeman, who imported the lobotomy from Portugal, might perform up
to 25 procedures in a day.
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