What is a Frontal Lobotomy?

Amy Hunter

A frontal lobotomy is a surgical procedure that was once performed on the brain of someone who suffered from certain psychiatric conditions. Now considered a barbaric procedure, frontal lobotomies were developed and performed at a time when the mentally ill were routinely placed in asylums. While the cure rate was not high, it was the first treatment that showed any improvement at all for many patients. In this procedure, the patient has the connection to the prefrontal cortex — the front section of the frontal lobe of the brain — severed.

Frontal lobotomies were commonly used to treat psychiatric patients in the 40s and 50s.
Frontal lobotomies were commonly used to treat psychiatric patients in the 40s and 50s.

The first frontal lobotomy was performed in 1935, and the procedure was widely used throughout the 1940s through the mid 1950s. The development of antipsychotic medications in the mid 1950s reduced the number of procedures gradually, but it took years for the drugs to replace surgery as the treatment of choice for many types of mental disorders.

In the past, frontal lobotomies were prescribed to patients with schizophrenia and paranoia.
In the past, frontal lobotomies were prescribed to patients with schizophrenia and paranoia.

Initially, the procedure was very invasive, and required the surgeon to drill holes through the skull and into the brain. He or she then used alcohol or a specialized tool to destroy portions of the brain. Later, medical professionals modified the procedure, and they accessed the brain through the eye socket. This made the procedure possible on patients in state hospitals who would not otherwise have access to a medical treatment that required a surgical room, anesthesia, and intensive postoperative care.

In the past, frontal lobotomies were used to treat dementia.
In the past, frontal lobotomies were used to treat dementia.

The invasive method of surgery made the procedure risky, and deaths were common. Other side effects included epilepsy and permanent muscle weakness. The severity of possible side effects, the fact that the procedure did not dependably treat the condition, and the development of medications that could treat psychotic illnesses all led to the decline in popularity in this procedure.

Frontal lobotomies were once used for several types of mental disorders.
Frontal lobotomies were once used for several types of mental disorders.

Originally, frontal lobotomies were prescribed for patients with schizophrenia, dementia, mania, anxiety, and paranoia. At the time that the procedure was developed, other extreme methods of dealing with mental illnesses were explored as well. While the new methods seem barbaric now, at the time, they were the only treatment available. The other extreme treatments included electroconvulsive therapy, insulin shock therapy, deep sleep therapy, and malarial therapy.

A frontal lobotomy severs the connection to the prefrontal cortex, the front section of the frontal lobe.
A frontal lobotomy severs the connection to the prefrontal cortex, the front section of the frontal lobe.

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Discussion Comments


I have read that mass killers (who are obviously mentally deranged) can have this procedure done and returned to society. They are not cured, but they are not dangerous. If that is the case, then maybe this should be reinstated. Also, if a very mentally challenged person can be housed at home instead of an institution, then maybe it is not such a bad thing. I do not know -- just wondering.


This article is sadly still somewhat lacking. You neglected to include the main purpose lobotomies were performed: To eradicate undesirable behavior and to make a person easier to handle.

Many psychiatrists have commented on this. In fact, back in the 1950s no one even tried to hide that this was the main goal (as you can find many many comments in literature on this, should you wish to verify) as making patients easier to handle was seen as a way to reduce cost and increase time effectiveness in psychiatric wards; and these were seen as laudable goals, even at the cost of a person's free will and emotions (the effect of becoming "sweet and harmless" through receiving brain damage had been noted in animals before, as stated by Friedrich Goltz, 1834-1902).

Even back then, people criticized that lobotomizing was, in essence, killing a person without destroying their body.


@Iluviaporos - It makes you wonder how many geniuses and artists and poets of that time were sadly destroyed by this technique. I understand the desperation people feel when someone in their life (or even themselves) has a mental illness, or is very different, but I wish we could all just learn to be more accepting.


@pleonasm - The one "happy" story I know about lobotomies is one that involves Janet Frame, a very distinguished poet and author from New Zealand.

She went through a lot of trauma as a child, including losing several of her brothers and sisters in different accidents, like drownings and fires. She was extremely creative in a society where that wasn't really encouraged and she was so depressed that eventually it got to the point where they put her in a mental institution "for her own good".

She was going to have the procedure. They were going to give her a pre-frontal lobotomy, I think. She was just days away from it, when the nurse came in and gave her an envelope. It turned out that Ms Frame had won a national literary prize for her first book.

So, the lobotomy was canceled. And she wrote many books after that, which likely would not have happened if she'd been drooling in a hospital somewhere for the rest of her life.


@jcraig - I heard it wasn't even that he had schizophrenia, but that he was basically moody and wouldn't obey his parents. Essentially normal behavior for a 12 year old. And for that he was given permanent brain damage with a frontal lobotomy.

It's such a sad story. Kind of puts a new perspective on people who decry today's parents giving too much medication to their kids.


@jmc88 Well, there is Howard Dully, who had a lobotomy when he was 12 years old because he was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child. Although he did eventually recover, and wrote a book about his experiences, no less, it took him years to function in society again. Even after that, he was in and out of institutions and incarceration for much of his young adult life. Apparently it was only in his 50s that he started to probe into what had happened to him as a kid. My dad read his biography and said it was a pretty incredible story!


I have to say, this immediately made me recall "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," and what Jack Nicholson's character was like post-surgery. Chilling! It makes me wonder if any patients who had this done were considered success stories, or even left with the ability to function.

@titans62 -- Yes, I would say so. In fact, the psychiatrist who essentially created the procedure, Antonio Egas Moniz, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1949. He was Portuguese, too, and the first of that ethnicity to win the Nobel Prize. In the context of the time, I'm sure it was considered the cutting edge ... until the side effects were discovered.

I can't believe this procedure was done (and discovered) as recently as the 20th century! I'm sure at the time, it was hailed as something that was going to change medicine or psychiatry, too. Unbelievable.


This procedure is crazy! it was introduced by Walter Freeman to the U.S in 1936 with James W. Watts. I understand at the times medical operations were much in the experimental phase, but the person behind it is a Satan worshipper. And his family bloodline proves it.

It is clear that operations like this were not for their main causes of sickness, but more of a way to understand the brain and introduce mind control. This same operation was used widely throughout the war by the Russians, Germans and of course the USA.


Rosemary Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s sister, also had a lobotomy done. When Rosemary was young, it was determined that she was mildly retarded. In 1941, at age 23, she had a lobotomy which left her permanently incapacitated.

Her father was told that the lobotomy was a new procedure that would help her mood swings. He authorized the procedure and never consulted his wife or other family members.

Rosemary was left with an infant-like mentality and urinary incontinence. Her speech was incomprehensible.


@medicchristy Yes, it was Tennessee Williams. His older sister, Rose, had a frontal lobotomy done. This greatly affected Williams for the remainder of his life because he knew his sister would never be the same again.


Wasn't there a writer whose sister had a frontal lobotomy?

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