Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Lobotomizing veterans

Really great investigative reporting by the Wall Street Journal:

Between April 1, 1947, and Sept. 30, 1950, VA doctors lobotomized 1,464 veterans at 50 hospitals authorized to perform the surgery, according to agency documents rediscovered by the Journal. Scores of records from 22 of those hospitals list another 466 lobotomies performed outside that time period, bringing the total documented operations to 1,930. Gaps in the records suggest that hundreds of additional operations likely took place at other VA facilities. The vast majority of the patients were men, although some female veterans underwent VA lobotomies, as well.
Lobotomies faded from use after the first major antipsychotic drug, Thorazine, hit the market in the mid-1950s...

Notice that the procedure often seemed to work, and it may have even been beneficial for the veteran prominently featured in the story. But for his lobotomy, he might have been institutionalized his entire life. We might assume that antipsychotics would have helped him, but we cannot know that. (And, of course, the folks performing the lobotomies could not have know that the advent of antipsychotics was coming in less than a decade.)

Not that treating war trauma with antipsychotics is a good thing, mind you. Remember that Thorazine was first marketed as a "chemical lobotomy," i.e. yielding all the positive effects of lobotomy without the hassles of surgery.

The real issue here, of course, is how many thousands of men were driven mad by their war experiences.

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