jump to navigation

Lobotomies and Rosemary Kennedy September 23, 2009

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in History, mental illness.
Tags: ,
1 comment so far

During World War II, the military became increasingly more interested in treatment of mental illness, given the high number of war-related new cases it was seeing.  Coinciding with that new interest was the development of new mental illness therapies including lobotomies, where part of a patient’s brain was cut away in an attempt to cut out their mental illness- much as we cut cancer away from a body now. But instead of removing a cancerous growth from a brain, they removed part of the patient’s brain. Between 1936 and 1960, about 50,000 lobotomies were performed on mental patients in the United States alone, with devastating results.

The ugly spotlight of reality was finally shined brightly on lobotomies when the sister of a President of the United States got one, with disastrous results. Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, received a lobotomy in 1941, when she was 23 years old. At the time, her father was told by her doctors that a cutting edge procedure would help her DEPRESSION (Note: Many media reports incorrectly say she was treated for retardation, but in reality she was treated for depression). At the time of her operation, only 65 previous lobotomies had been performed. Dr. Watts, who performed the surgery while Dr. Freeman supervised/observed, described the procedure on Rosemary as follows:

We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards. … “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” … When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.

Instead of producing the hoped-for result, however, the lobotomy reduced Rosemary to an infantile mentality. She had to wear diapers because she was incontinent. She could do nothing except sit in a chair and stare blankly at walls. Her verbal skills were reduced to unintelligible babble. The procedure left her completely incapacitated, and her family was devastated and filled with guilt.

Although Dr. Watts’ license to practice medicine was revoked after he performed over 3,000 of those operations, it wasn’t because of the horrendous nature of the operation.  It was because of the death of one of his patients.  After the procedure destroyed many lives, it finally became viewed as the destructive tool that it was. It is no longer in use.