Psychiatric Horrors in History pt. 3

Rosemary Kennedy (JFK’s sister) was the most famous of Freeman’s patients. There is controversy regarding Rosemary’s condition prior to the Lobotomy. Naturally, the more normal she was, even if severely troubled, the more inappropriate and barbaric the treatment appears to have been. It is widely reported today that she was mildly retarded, and emotionally disturbed. Kessler and others have argued that she was not retarded at all. Her diary and performance at school also seem to back Kessler’s claim (246). Even if she was mildly retarded, and it does not appear that she was, the treatment was a dramatic failure. She was left as an invalid, incontinent and unable to communicate intelligibly. Prior to the surgery she wrote in a diary, performed math and played tennis all at levels beyond what could be considered retarded (Kessler 246, 251). Opinions about her father, Joseph Kennedy’s role in the matter range from him being viewed as either cruelly selfish or honestly naïve. Either way, this attempt at a physical remedy for mental, emotional and behavioral problems was a complete failure—from Rosemary’s perspective at least. Her brother did go on to fulfill the political aspirations of their father without the distraction of their troubled family member. From that perspective the operation achieved one of its ends, albeit with more severe harm to Rosemary than anyone wished.
Howard Dully was another of Freeman’s victims who was lobotomized when he was only 12 years old. He obviously did not experience the same extent of injury to his brain that poor Rosemary suffered from this procedure. The extent of damage done to Rosemary by the surgery was disclosed through a description by someone who assisted in the operation, “”We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards. … “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” … When she began to become incoherent, they stopped. (Kessler 243-244)”
Since the procedure was so imprecise, varying levels of damage could occur. The surgery would even be repeated if necessary to create a more passive and subdued state in some patients. Dully’s more mild effects are evident in that he was recently working as a school bus driver and appears, and sounds, relatively normal. However, the account about what led up to his lobotomy is chilling and telling about the amount of “science” and good “medicine” that were being practiced. NPR reports:
“A search of Dully’s records among Freeman’s files archived at George Washington University turned up clues about why Freeman lobotomized him
According to Freeman’s notes, Lou Dully said she feared her stepson, whom she described as defiant and savage looking. “He doesn’t react either to love or to punishment,” the notes say of Howard Dully. “He objects to going to bed but then sleeps well. He does a good deal of daydreaming and when asked about it he says ‘I don’t know.’ He turns the room’s lights on when there is broad sunlight outside.” On Nov. 30, 1960, Freeman wrote: “Mrs. Dully came in for a talk about Howard. Things have gotten much worse and she can barely endure it. I explained to Mrs. Dully that the family should consider the possibility of changing Howard’s personality by means of transorbital lobotomy. Mrs. Dully said it was up to her husband, that I would have to talk with him and make it stick.” Then on Dec. 3, 1960: “Mr. and Mrs. Dully have apparently decided to have Howard operated on. I suggested [they] not tell Howard anything about it.” In an entry dated Jan. 4, 1961, two and a half weeks after the boy’s lobotomy, Freeman wrote: “I told Howard what I’d done to him… and he took it without a quiver. He sits quietly, grinning most of the time and offering nothing.” Dully says that when Lou Dully realized the operation didn’t turn him “into a vegetable, she got me out of the house. I was made a ward of the state.”
From bleeding patients, starving brain cells until coma ensues, inducing brain damage through metrazol and electric shock therapy, to directly cutting nerve fibers in their brains, the history of Psychiatry has certainly been a disturbing one. One thing that all of these errors have in common is a belief in a bodily remedy to mental and emotional problems. As Christians we should be able to recognize the evils that have been done to psychiatric patients and not turn a blind eye. This record of psychiatry should help remind us that just because someone wears a white coat, and graduated from Medical School does not mean that they are a compassionate person with good judgment. Our Christian world-view allows and even compels us to recognize the capacity of men and societies to commit great acts of evil. After all, the Scriptures describe mankind as living “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. (Eph. 2:2).  The history of psychiatry displays the awful abuse of a weak and disadvantaged group by their would-be care-takers. It is one example out of the many demonstrations of the sinfulness of man in history. I should add, that not all Psychiatrists participated in these barbaric treatments. God’s common grace which prevents unsaved men from being as bad as they could be also applies to Psychiatrists.
From my discussions with advocates of psychiatry, I know that some will raise the objection that this is creating a false dichotomy. In other words, it is not necessarily an either/ or situation, and we can address both our physical and ‘spiritual issues’ with help from the medical and pastoral communities. While that solution sounds good, it does not stand the test of examining what types of symptoms apply to which of these two realms. Sorting out the differences between “psychiatric” and “spiritual” problems will be the focus of  another post.

Kessler, Ronald. The Sins of the Father. New York: Warner Books, 1996. Print. ‘My Lobotomy’: Howard Dully’s Journey. November 16, 2005
Whitaker, Robert: Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2002. Print.

Breggin, Peter. Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, empathy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the “New Psychiatry”. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Print.


Psychiatric Horrors in History pt. 2

Metrazol induced seizures came in vogue in the 1930’s. This therapy induced violent convulsions, which often resulted in fractured bones, and was practiced by 70% of the nations hospitals in the U.S. in 1939 (Whitaker 96). Patients were naturally terrified by this treatment, and this terror was thought, like Benjamin Rush believed one and a half centuries earlier, to play a role in the purported benefits (95). Like insulin coma, metrazol treatment was known to cause brain damage, but this very destruction was rationalized to be involved in the so-called healing. The behavior of patients was radically changed for a brief period after the treatment, but whether those changes were beneficial or not was a matter of debate. Patients behaved in infantile ways and were more subdued from the brain damage inflicted by this “therapy”. Yet because these changes were short-lived, multiple treatments were deemed necessary (94).
A simpler and more efficient way to reduce psychotic symptoms by traumatizing the brain, and hence the person, was introduced in 1940 in the form of electric shock treatment. Like insulin coma and metrazol induced seizures, electric shock caused patients to act in more docile ways, but this was also the result of direct damage to brain cells (99). The ‘beneficial’ confusion and disorientation from electric shock were also short lived as the brain recovered from the traumatic injury (100). Researchers noted that the effects of ECT on the brain and the behavior most closely resembled another patient population—victims of severe head injuries (102). Brain damaging therapies like insulin coma, metrazol and ECT made mental health wards temporarily more manageable, and thus provided a perceived benefit to the practitioners. However, the resulting brain damage had a devastatingly negative effect on the potential for real recovery on the victims inflicted with these torturous remedies.
All of these therapies were done in the name of science and under the guise of being curative and helpful to patients. We cannot lessen the barbarity of these treatments by assigning them to the primitive, unscientific years of blood-letting and patented medicine. Most of these treatments were inflicted on people long after the scientific and industrial revolutions were underway. In fact ECT has been practiced to varying degrees up to the present day. Let these treatments serve as a red flag for you as you consider whether or not you should place your confidence in the medical expertise of Psychiatrists.
Can you imagine the extent that someone’s conscience must be seared to inflict multiple episodes of these treatments on patients while observing the traumatizing and brain damaging effects on them? We can and should sympathize with desperate patients and family members who have dealt for years with intense mental suffering. We can understand that their anguish could lead them to attempt drastic measures in the hopes of recovery. However, it is more difficult to understand how trained medical experts could inflict such damage on their fellow human beings with so little benefit to show for their efforts. While justice has been sought for those who have suffered crimes during various wars, shouldn’t similar justice be sought on behalf of those who have been harmed by the grandiosity, callousness, and mistreatment of these psychiatrists?
This horrid history becomes yet even more disturbing. While the twentieth century moved forward, technology moved forward, modern medicine moved forward, psychiatry took another step backward with the introduction and practice of prefrontal lobotomy in the 1930’s to 1960’s. In 1949 Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize for using this procedure on humans. He and the other doctors who first performed the procedure claimed that the vast majority of their patients were cured or improved by it (Whitaker 114-116). It wasn’t until several years later that it became more widely known that their report of improvement included patients who were listless, unmotivated, and emotionally childish (121-124). Some would not stir from their beds even to use the toilet (123). The frontal lobes are known to be the center of higher thinking. When pathways to these parts of the brain are severed in prefrontal lobotomy, it is inevitable that the distinctively human traits and abilities are diminished. Doctors and state authorities even admitted that Mental Hospitals used lobotomy to subdue difficult patients (135). Walter Freeman was an early proponent of pre-frontal lobotomy in the U.S. traveling to state mental hospitals in his car to perform the procedure. He had the operation streamlined to the point that it took only 10 minutes to drive the ice picks beneath the patient’s eyebrows and jiggle them around destroying parts of the frontal lobe (134). He even performed the procedure on at least 11 troubled youths, one of them being only four years old (135). An NPR feature gives us a description of the surgery.

“As those who watched the procedure described it, a patient would be rendered unconscious by electroshock. Freeman would then take a sharp ice pick-like instrument, insert it above the patient’s eyeball through the orbit of the eye, into the frontal lobes of the brain, moving the instrument back and forth. Then he would do the same thing on the other side of the face.” (, November, 2005)
Rosemary Kennedy (JFK’s sister) was the most famous of Freeman’s patients.

Psychiatric Horrors in History pt. 1

This review of the History of Psychiatry is indebted to Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America and Peter Breggin’s writings.
We begin our overview of the history of psychiatry with one of its founders—Benjamin Rush. Rush can arguably be considered the “Father” of Psychiatry. His face is even on the seal of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Rush was also a famous statesmen, signer of the declaration of Independence, and friend of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In his care for the insane he mixed humane treatment with that which by all estimates came to be regarded as torture. He once stated that “Terror acts powerfully on the body, through the medium of the mind, and should be employed in the cure of madness” (Whitaker, 3). Ironically, he believed in treating the mentally ill with respect in comfortable surroundings, but he also believed in using the latest techniques that were being employed by the Physicians in Europe.
The medical advancements in Europe that Rush wanted to employ included, bleeding and emetics—vomiting inducing agents. They also included the ‘spinning chair’, dunking in water, and an immobilizing device coined ‘the tranquilizer chair’(Whitaker 7; Breggin, “Toxic 108). These were designed to weaken the raving mad and make them more docile and submissive. Wounds were sometimes created on the bodies of the mentally ill and caustic substances would be rubbed on them to induce pain. The pain was thought to be a beneficial distraction. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s various forms of water therapy were practiced. These included spraying the patient with streams of water, dunking them in cold water baths, and even “drowning therapy” which brought back victims from the verge of death in an attempt to renew their sanity (Whitaker 11-12). As a result of Rush’s belief that mental illness was caused by an abnormality in the blood flow to the brain he would bleed his patients almost to the point of death (Breggin “Toxic” 108-109). He believed that up to four fifths of the body’s blood supply should be removed (Whitaker 14). Rush was also a general Physician, and while modern medicine has moved away from his unscientific treatments (he was the Doctor who bled George Washington to death for a sore throat), Psychiatry has carried on his tradition of experimental mistreatment.
In the 1890’s to the early twentieth century gynecological surgeries were thought to have benefits on the insane. Hysterectomies and oopherectomies (removal of the ovaries) were performed in mental institutions and reported to have therapeutic effects on patients (78-79). Injecting hormones from sheep glands was also used because insanity was thought to be caused by abnormal hormones in corresponding human glands (79). After recovering from the feverish illness caused by the injections the patients were reported to have improved. Other directors of Mental Hospitals injected toxic chemicals into the spinal fluid of patients (80). Henry Cotton performed surgery on the patients at his mental hospital in Trenton, NJ. He believed that bacteria were involved in causing insanity. This idea led him to extract his patient’s teeth, but he eventually moved on to the colon, appendix, gall bladder and other various organs. He confidently trumpeted his success rates, but was later found to be falsifying his results (80-81). Other doctors attempted drug induced sleep for up to days at a time. Fever therapy was also tried by inducing higher temperatures physically and with injectable substances. This was followed elsewhere by cooling and refrigeration therapy which lowered the temperatures of patients to hypothermic states (83-84).
In the 1930’s insulin coma therapy was championed as a revolutionary breakthrough. Insulin lowers the blood sugar which is necessary for normal body processes including brain functioning. With the injection of excessive insulin, the blood sugar drops and coma eventually ensues. This is normally a life threatening medical emergency to be avoided at all costs. However when it comes to the mentally ill, apparently the most dangerous experiments are fair game. Reader’s Digest, Time and Harper’s magazines all heralded it as an effective advancement in therapy (86). The technique was soon shown to cause significant brain damage, as could be expected, and yet it spawned other therapies which also destroyed brain cells like replacing needed oxygen with nitrogen (89-90).
Don’t forget, by this time, antibiotics and other advancements in modern medicine were providing wonderful benefits for people. Psychiatry was eagerly searching for its scientific breakthroughs. Over and over again the latest treatment would be loudly proclaimed to be a revolutionary finding, and then with the passage of time, sometimes a few years, at other times decades, that treatment would be discredited and outdated. Isn’t it shocking and amazing that Psychiatry did not recognize and learn from this horrid history of failed treatments? On the contrary, as we shall see, the profession not only failed to learn from such harmful practices, but recklessly marched on to even more barbaric treatments.