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.