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Using Historic Newspapers to Study Accounts of a Now-Abandoned Medical Procedure

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This is a guest post by Ariela Gomez, an intern with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) internship program.

The brain is one of most complex organs of the human body. While the field of neuroscience has significantly grown, so have our questions concerning the central structure of the human nervous system. Attempts to treat mental illness in the past, however well-intentioned they might have been, can sometimes be shocking or upsetting today. Reading and analyzing primary sources can help students understand how people thought about the brain and treated mental illnesses in the early and mid-twentieth century.

Brain Operation Described. Evening Star, November 20, 1936

In the early decades of the twentieth century, some doctors began using an experimental surgical procedure to treat patients experiencing mental illness or distress. In this procedure, called  lobotomy, a surgeon would open the patient’s skull and sever connections within, or even completely remove, a portion of the brain. Without offering context, introduce students to a 1936 case history about a woman who is described as becoming happier after a lobotomy, excerpting the case history from the longer article. (Given the sensitive and possibly upsetting nature of the content, you may wish to consider provide your own synopsis of the article.)

  • What surprises your students about the description of the patient’s changed behavior?
  • What questions do they have?
  • Encourage them to develop hypotheses about “the operation” – to elicit deeper thinking, ask them “what makes you say that?”

Give students the full article, focusing them on the description of the operation. Allow time for comparison between their hypotheses and the article. Again, what surprises them? What questions do they still have?

An article from May 7, 1941, describes this procedure as pre-frontal lobotomy. Dr. Walter Freeman changed the procedure in 1946 by using an electric current through the brain from the skull that caused the patient to become unconscious. Then he would use a sharp instrument introduced through the patient’s eye socket to strike the selected sections of the brain. Give students either or both of the articles to read, and then ask them what they notice first. How do these descriptions compare to what they read in the 1936 article? To each other?

In 1949, Dr. Hess and Dr. Moniz jointly received the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work in the development of pre-frontal lobotomy. What does that award suggest about how the procedure was regarded at the time?

In 1979, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives ”to prohibit the performance of psychosurgery, including lobotomy, psychiatric surgery, and behavioral surgery” and referred to the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Though that legislation was not passed into law, it indicates a shift in how the procedure was regarded later in the twentieth century.

Consider asking your students what different factors might have contributed to the legislators’ introduction of this bill, and to the shift in how this procedure was regarded.

If time allows, interested students might research to learn current perspectives on treating brain-related conditions, and discuss how current practices might be perceived a century from now.


Comments (2)

  1. THANK YOU! Very powerful.
    Topics in Chronicling America also has an enlightening set of articles on the Eugenics movement.
    We will introduce your piece in our courses on teaching students with disabilities, which also includes History of People with Disabilities. We are part of the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources network.
    Rich Cairn, Emerging America

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