History of Psychosurgery

1848: Modern psychosurgery can be traced back to an incident when a explosion drove an iron rod through the cheek and out of the top of the head of railway worker, Phineas Gage. Before the accident, Gage had been a capable foreman, a religious man with a well-balanced mind and shrewd business sense.

After the accident, Gage recovered, but he became fitful, irreverent, grossly profane, impatient and obstinate. Psychiatrists continued to be intrugued by the sudden mood change and began testing the use of psychosurgery to alter the behaviour of their patients.

1890: A German scientist named Friederich Golz, doing experiments with dogs, reported that when the temporal lobe were removed, animals were more tame and calmer than the unoperated ones.

1888: On the 29 December 1888, and first reported in 1891, Swiss asylum superintendent Gottlieb Burckhardt was the first known psychosurgeon to removed cerebral tissue from six patients without ‘spectacular results.’ Although one died and others developed epilepsy, paralysis and aphasia (loss of ability to use or understand words), Burckhardt was pleased with his quiet patients.

July 1935, the International Neurological Congress was held in London and psychologists John F. Fulton and Carlyle Jacobsen reported on the removal of the frontal lobes in two chimpanzees. They claimed the chimpanzees had been cured of their temperamental disposition.

1935: Antonio Egas Moniz, a professor of neurology in Lisbon, Portugal, attended the London conference. Inspired by the work of Fulton and Jacobsen, he returned to Lisbon where he performed the same operation on humans, theorising that the source of mental disorders was located in this part of the brain.

“In accordance with the theory we have just developed,” he said, “one conclusion is derived: to cure these patients we must destroy the more or less fixed arrangements of cellular connections that exist in the brain.”

A 12-year follow up study observed that Moniz’s patients suffered relapses, seizures and death. Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Psychosurgery.

Ironically, in 1944, he was paralysed by gunshots in the back from a disgruntled patient.