Kristy Staniszewski is completing her first year in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also an employee of the college. This is an excerpt from her prospective thesis work on women and mental illness.
Beginning in the 1930’s, lobotomies were considered a new and viable treatment for individuals suffering from mental illness. A lobotomy is a psychosurgical procedure where nerve fibers connecting the frontal lobe of the brain and the thalamus are severed. This was originally accomplished by drilling into a patients head, and later advanced to an easier method of inserting a steel rod resembling an ice-pick, under the eyelid and into the brain. In order to prepare a patient for such a lobotomy, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was first administered to the patient; strong electric currents that are passed through the brain to induce seizures and a coma. Due to the possibility of lobotomies resulting in no change, increased damage or fatality, the lobotomy was considered a last resort treatment for those suffering from mental illness.
In the years 1936 – 1952, over 18,000 lobotomies in the US were performed alone. The advanced “ice-pick” method allowed physicians to perform the procedure in their private offices, without the need for additional surgical staff. Individuals admitted to mental hospitals were commonly recipients of this procedure, and often would first receive treatment before talking with a medical professional in the hospital. The decision to perform the procedure was made by the physician and a close relative, usually the patient’s spouse. Consent of the patient was not required. One of the central questions of my thesis is how a “last resort” procedure became a quick and popular treatment, and why a majority of these patients were women. Glorified procedure results of lobotomized patients were common newspaper articles and did not emphasize gender. Upon further examination of medical records and oral histories it becomes clear however, that the majority of patients who received lobotomies were women. I believe there is a connection between the ways in which the role of women changed before, during and after World War II, how that change affected their mental wellness and created behavioral changes that were perceived as abnormal in a patriarchal society.