If the history of lobotomy itself weren’t infuriating and horrifying by itself, the development of the procedure would be. Because the experiment that gave Antonio Egas Moniz the idea for the lobotomy in the first place was actually a partial failure, yet Moniz chose to focus on the “positive.”
In the 1930s, John Fulton was a neurologist at a primate research facility, studying how damage to the brains of chimpanzees influenced the chimps’ behavior. The neurologist had established that cortical lesions lead to both paralysis and involuntary, jerky muscle movements. He also established that a “bilateral frontal lobe ablation” destroyed mental skills. When he performed such an ablation on two chimps, Becky and Lucy, their success at certain mental tasks dropped to no more than chance levels. This would be nothing more than practical proof of the importance of the frontal lobe on cognitive tasks, except for the fact that Fulton noted behavior as well as results.
Both chimps became notably less anxious after the ablation. Becky, Fulton noted in particular, seemed elated and peaceful, as if she had just joined a “cult.” When she failed a test before the operation, she would get agitated. After the operation, she seemed as happy to fail as she was to succeed. Lucy was another story; she became more angry and violent when she failed the tests after the operation than she had been when she’d failed them before the operation.
The fact that such procedures could alter not just ability but behavior was a breakthrough, even though we now know the first procedures inspired by this breakthrough were nightmarish. Fulton presented his findings at a symposium on the frontal lobe where Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz was in attendance, and the rest was history. He ignored the chimps’ inability to complete mental tasks, and instead focused on the fact that Becky had become more placid after the ablation — and the lobotomy, as it came to be known, became the go-to operation for anything from schizophrenia (which it definitely did not help) to teenage rebellion. What mattered is it rendered people calm and easy to handle. So a half-failed procedure moved from two chimps to thousands of people.
Top image: Alain Houle, BMC Ecology Image Competition.