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Mentally ill World War II vets lobotomized, documents show

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The Wall Street Journal has dug up a long forgotten and grim chapter of American history in a collection of papers that describes how nearly 2,000 veterans — some suffering from what we would call PTSD — underwent lobotomies in VA facilities in the 1940s and ’50s.

The former service members were diagnosed as depressives, psychotics and schizophrenics, and sometimes homosexuals, according to the Journal. The procedure, which involves cutting connections between the pre-frontal cortex and the rest of the brain, was carried out in VA hospitals across the country.

Today we may recognize the lobotomy as something as horrific as treating every illness with leeches or bloodletting, but to be fair to the VA doctors, the lobotomy was considered cutting edge at the time. The Portuguese neurologist who first used the prefrontal leucotomy to treat psychoses was even awarded the Nobel in medicine in 1949 for his discovery. It’s estimated that as many as 50,000 Americans were lobotomized, most between 1949 and 1952.

The results of the VA lobotomies mirrored what doctors discovered in the rest of the country: Some patients appeared to improve, i.e., their emotions were less intense, but too often the barbaric procedure turned its victims into vegetables. Some veterans died from the operation itself.

The Department of Veterans Affairs issued as statement to the Journal:

“In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, VA and other physicians throughout the United States and the world debated the utility of lobotomies. The procedure became available to severely ill patients who had not improved with other treatments. Within a few years, the procedure disappeared within VA, and across the United States, as safer and more effective treatments were developed.”

The popularity of the barbaric procedure waned with the advent of anti-psychotic drugs.

The Journal was able to track down some veterans who survived the lobotomies. You can read their stories here.

Updated: Although leeches are making a limited comeback in modern medicine, I think it’s fair to say that most of us would be horrified to go to the doctor with a throat infection and find out that the treatment is bloodletting. No doubt that losing liters of my blood wouldn’t help my infection any more than it did George Washington’s.

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