History and Context of Psychosurgery

Psychosurgery is believed to have originated with the observation by early medical practitioners that severe head injuries could produce extreme changes in behavior patterns. In addition, physicians ofthe thirteenth to six teenth centuries reported that sword and knife wounds that penetrated the skull could change normal behavior patterns. From the mid-1930's to the mid-1960's, reputable physicians performed psychosurgery on both indigent patients in public institutions and on the wealthy at expensive private hospitals and universities.

Psychosurgery was imperfect and could cause adverse reactions, but it was performed because of the arguments advanced by powerful physician proponents of the method; the imperfect state of knowledge of the brain at the time; the enthusiasm of the popular press, which lauded the method; and many problems at overcrowded mental hospitals. The last reason is thought to have been the most compelling, as asylums for the incurably mentally ill were hellish places. Patients were beaten and choked by attendants, incarcerated in dark, dank, padded cells, and subjected to many other indignities. At the same time, little could be done to cure them.

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