In the 1940s and 1950s, state mental hospitals around the U.S. were bursting at the seams with untreatable disorders, most commonly schizophrenia. In fact, more people were hospitalized with psychiatric illnesses than with all other diseases combined. Psychiatrists were desperate to do something, anything to stem the tide.
The answer: lobotomies.
Today, lobotomies share a space in a dusty bin next to whips, chains, snake pits, phrenology machines, and trepanning—an ancient ritual in which holes are drilled into the brain to “release evil spirits.” Although lobotomies are now a subject of horror movies, in a sense, they’re back. We just don’t call them lobotomies anymore.
I’ll start at the beginning.
In August 1935, at a conference of neurologists in London, John Fulton and Carlyle Jacobsen, physiologists from Yale, described a study on two chimps: Becky and Lucy. The researchers had instructed the chimps to use sticks to get food. Where Lucy was patient in her efforts, Becky wasn’t, flying into a rage, pulling her hair, defecating, and throwing feces at the scientists.
The real experiment came next. To better understand the role of specific areas of the brain in performing certain tasks, Fulton and Jacobsen removed Lucy and Becky’s frontal lobes (called a lobectomy). Although Becky still had trouble getting the food, she no longer seemed to care. “It was as though [she] had joined a happiness cult,” said Jacobsen. Apparently, Fulton and Jacobsen had invented a surgical treatment for anxiety.
Sitting in the audience that day was a Portuguese neurologist named Egas Moniz, who asked Fulton whether this same operation could be performed on people. Fulton thought that Moniz was joking, but he wasn’t.
On Nov. 11, 1935, Moniz, in collaboration with neurosurgeon Almeida Lima, drilled a hole into each side of the skull of a 63-year-old Portuguese woman who suffered from extreme anxiety and paranoia. After exposing the brain, Lima injected a half-teaspoon of alcohol into her frontal lobes. Two days later, according to Moniz, the woman was much calmer—her anxieties and paranoia gone. Moniz pronounced her cured. Later, Moniz and Lima modified their procedure; instead of injecting alcohol into the brain, they used a long, thin rod with a wire loop to remove small cores from the frontal lobe, like coring an apple. Within a few months, they had performed their procedure on 13 more patients. Psychosurgery was born.
In 1949, the Nobel Prize committee recognized Egas Moniz “for his invention of a surgical treatment of mental illness.” The New York Times hailed the winner as a brave explorer of the human brain. Moniz called his procedure a “leucotomy.” When it crossed the Atlantic Ocean, it was renamed “lobotomy.”
During the next four decades, 40,000 lobotomies were performed throughout the world—more than half in the United States. America’s love of lobotomies was due entirely to the zealotry of one man: Walter Freeman, a Philadelphian who modified the procedure. Instead of performing lobotomies in an operating room, he did them in his office. And instead of using a scalpel to open the skin or an auger to dig into the skull, he used an ice pick bearing the label “Uline Ice Company” that he had found in his kitchen drawer.
Freeman inserted the ice pick into the bone on the upper, inner aspect of the eye socket, drove it about three inches into the brain with a small hammer, and wiggled it around. Then he repeated the procedure on the other side. Freeman’s new ice-pick lobotomy didn’t take several hours; it took seven minutes. With his new method, he had moved lobotomies into the express lane of quick-fix cures. By the end of 1951, Freeman and his trainees had performed more than 18,000 of them. Freeman’s daughter called him the “Henry Ford of Psychiatry.”
Side effects from Freeman’s ice-pick procedure included memory loss, lack of inhibition, loss of bowel and bladder control, seizures, and occasionally fatal, uncontrollable bleeding. Two of the 11 children Freeman lobotomized died from cerebral hemorrhages.
In the middle of the 20th century, lobotomies were a “therapy of despair.” Today’s psychiatric therapies of despair don’t involve adults with schizophrenia; they involve children with autism, a disorder that can be both emotionally and financially burdensome and for which modern medicine has little to offer. Children with autism have been put in hyperbaric oxygen chambers, causing intense, painful pressure on their eardrums and at least one death. They’ve been given intravenous medicines designed to bind heavy metals, causing another child to die when his heart stopped beating. They’ve been taken to Central America or other regions where stem cells (or what have been called stem cells) have been injected into their spinal fluids. And, perhaps worst of all, they’ve been subjected to a therapy called Magic Mineral Solution (MMS), which crosses the line from desperation to child abuse.
MMS—marketed variously as Master Mineral Solution, Miracle Mineral Solution, and Miracle Mineral Supplement—was invented by a former Scientologist turned health evangelist named Jim Humble, who calls himself the archbishop of the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing and has claimed in church videos to be a billion-year-old god from the Andromeda galaxy.
MMS, which Humble offers as a cure for AIDS, malaria, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, contains two chemicals, sodium chlorite and citric acid that combine to form chlorine dioxide—a potent, industrial-strength bleach. In 2010, the FDA warned consumers not to take MMS, and to throw any containers of it away immediately.
In October 2016, Humble recanted his claims. The elusive American, tracked down near Guadalajara, Mexico, by an ABC News 20/20 team, told reporter Brian Ross he had no evidence MMS cured anything. Days later, ABC reported a statement from Humble said “In the past I have stated that MMS cures most of all diseases. Today, I say that MMS cures nothing!”
(Attempts to contact Humble for comment weren’t successful. MMS remains for sale on the church’s website.)
Unfortunately, parents of autistic children haven’t gotten the message: MMS is now all the rage in the autism community. The problem—apart from the fact that autism isn’t caused by worms—is that even small quantities of the substance, which children are directed to swallow or receive as an enema, can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, intestinal bleeding, respiratory failure, anemia, and, ironically, developmental delay. In October 2015, one U.S. vendor was sent to prison for selling the product. A California man has alleged that MMS caused his wife’s death, though an autopsy was inconclusive.
Parents who give their children this industrial bleach—and there appear to be thousands of them—often share their stories online. They write about children crying out in pain. They talk about how their children’s hair has fallen out. And they talk about how their kids have slowly grown more apathetic, losing any previous emotion. How MMS has made their children quieter, easier to handle. In essence, how—as had been the case for lobotomies—they have substituted one disorder for another. Still, these parents urge each other on. It’s working, they claim.
Given the level of desperation among some parents of children with autism, one could envision lobotomies themselves making a comeback. Imagine the following scenario: Several fringe doctors open a clinic in Sweden to treat autism. The doctors don’t call their new procedure lobotomies (that ship has sailed); rather, they call it the “Fresh Start” procedure. The doctors explain that the Fresh Start procedure involves cutting the nerves in the brain that cause autism, can be done as an outpatient, and takes only a few minutes to perform. Include a few parent testimonials, put up an attractive website, and open the doors. If a man who claimed to be a billion-year-old god from another galaxy could get people to squirt industrial-strength bleach into their children’s rectums, then doctors in some European clinic should expect at least equal enthusiasm for their lobotomies.
Desperate for cures, we continue to punish the afflicted.
Paul A. Offit is a professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is the author of Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong (National Geographic Press, April 2017).