Thursday, November 17, 2005

Warning: This Post is a Downer

Last night, NPR broadcast an amazing story on Walter Freeman, the inventor and promoter of the neurosurgical procedure known as the transorbital lobotomy. The story is told by Howard Dully, whom Freeman lobotomized at the age of 12. Dully's step-mother requested the procedure because Dully was unruly and behaved, as far as I can tell, much like the typical 12-year-old boy.

In a transorbital lobotomy, an ice-pick-like instrument (The original instrument was actually an ice pick that Freeman had in the back of a drawer in his kitchen.) is inserted under the eye lid, over the eyeball, through the eye socket (or orbital) and into the frontal lobe of the brain. The instrument is then swished around, more-or-less at random, severing connections in the frontal lobe. This process is usually done through both eye sockets. Freeman sometimes performed the procedure through both eyes simultaneously. Since I can't imagine there being a good medical reason for the simultaneity, I can only believe Freeman was adding a bit of showmanship to the surgery. The NPR story's description of the procedure repeatedly made me say, aloud, things like "'uwah-lah" and "blwah-ah"---and not in a funny, Jerry Lewis kind of way. Here is a rather discomforting photo of Dully's lobotomy.

Some people experienced good outcomes from the procedure, but many suffered significant brain damage. How did anyone ever think this surgery was a good treatment for everything from delusions to chronic headaches?

Anyway, you should check out the NPR story.

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