Egas Moniz And The Disturbing History Of Lobotomy

Egas Moniz and the disturbing history of lobotomy

Egas Moniz and his questionable research

In 1935, Egas Moniz, neurologist and professor at the University of Lisbon, decided to embark on his own “research” concerning the practice of lobotomy. The quotes surrounding the word “research” are essential, since it should all the same be noted that Moniz began his work on a chimpanzee. As he noticed, after having lobotomized him, that the animal adopted a more docile behavior, he made the questionable deduction that the process could perfectly be applied to humans.

This unscientific process has been contested for decades. However, what is absolutely certain is that it is perfectly impossible to extrapolate the conclusions drawn from an isolated case, to all cases and to all patients. Single-case studies are valuable to science, as work on rare diseases has opened up larger fields of research, but their findings are never strong enough to be generalized.

In the case which interests us, an additional limit can allow us to appreciate the error made by Moniz: his operation was performed on an animal, a primate in this case, and not on a human being. Unfortunately, this did not prevent Egas Moniz from being awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1949, for his “discovery”.

Egas Moniz worked closely with another neurologist, Almeida Lima. It was together that they performed their first lobotomies on human beings. The procedure considered to slightly open the orifices of the patient’s skull, before injecting alcohol into the cortex, in order to kill that part of the brain. The two neurologists were the only ones to assess patients’ progress after their procedures. This may explain why they noted positive developments in each case.

The followers of Egas Moniz

As we said in the introduction, the technique developed by Egas Moniz quickly became popular in Europe, being emulated in the four corners of the old continent. The most famous of them is certainly Walter Freeman. This man wasn’t actually a surgeon, but that didn’t stop him from developing a technique called “transorbital lobotomy” or “ice pick lobotomy”.

This American doctor discovered that he could easily access various areas of the brain by passing directly through the eye sockets. To carry out his operations, he used an instrument similar to an ice pick, before “stirring a little”, and completing his intervention. This practice only lasted 5 minutes.

As the method turned out to be particularly practical and fast, Freeman was able to industrialize it and offer his services at home. He had a van, called “Lobotomobile”, with which he traveled the United States, in order to lobotomize, right and left, people suffering from the most varied mental disorders. It is estimated that he was able to operate between 40,000 and 50,000 patients worldwide; figures that are cold in the back.

The prohibition of lobotomy

Most patients who had a lobotomy died soon after. Those who survived suffered very severe brain damage, which could manifest itself immediately after the operation, or a few years later. A good part of them then found themselves in a vegetative state, while the rest presented a cognitive regression of their mental faculties. The procedure could be performed for years without arousing suspicion, as it is estimated that a third of the operations gave “positive” results, at least from the point of view of patient behavior.

Lobotomy was not only used to cure mental illnesses. The aim was to “calm” the patients treated. This is why many people with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and suicidal depression, have been treated with this method. Surgery has also been performed extensively on patients with schizophrenic disorders, even though its results in this area have been disastrous.

The lobotomy causes a total cut between the patient and the world around him, it is its famous “calming” effect. Many families have seen lobotomy as a breakthrough, a source of hope, at a time when mental disorders were still unknown, when patients were often a burden to those around them and when they were tossed from psychiatric hospitals to asylums. crazy. The experimental surgical procedure appeared to allow patients to break out of confinement and return to society.


Lobotomy fell into disuse from the 1950s, especially after the invention of Chlorpromazine, the first antipsychotic in history. Strangely enough, the inventor of this drug called it “chemical lobotomy”. In the 1970s, the procedure was banned in most countries around the world. Unfortunately, it seems that it has continued to be practiced since, in a clandestine manner. A citizen collective has mobilized to demand the official withdrawal of the Nobel Prize for Medicine from Egas Moniz, rightly considering that humanity has suffered much more from its invention than it has benefited from it.


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