Nobel Panel Urged to Rescind Prize for Lobotomies

The now-discredited procedure of the lobotomy, which involves severing nerve connections within the brain of a mentally ill person, won the Nobel Prize for Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz in 1949. Now there's an effort by the families of lobotomy patients to persuade the Nobel Prize committee to rescind the award given to Moniz.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Every year in October scientists, writers and activists are awarded the Nobel Prize for outstanding achievement in their field. In 1949, a Portugese neurologist won the award for inventing a procedure known as the lobotomy. It involved severing nerve connections within the brain. Today the lobotomy is considered a barbaric treatment for mental illness, and that's why relatives of lobotomy patients now have started a campaign to have the prize rescinded. NPR's Eric Weiner reports.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

When a medical procedure is pilloried by Hollywood, you know it has a serious image problem, to say the least, and so it is with the lobotomy, which played a central and menacing role in the 1975 film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

(Soundbite from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest")

Unidentified Man #1: Tell me, do you think there's anything wrong with your mind, really?

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON: (As Randle Patrick McMurphy) Not a thing, Doc. I'm a marvel of modern science.

WEINER: Later a lobotomy leaves the once-rambunctious Randle Patrick McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, meek and vacant. The film cemented the reputation of the lobotomy as a barbaric procedure on par with bloodletting and leeches. But for many years the lobotomy was considered a medical breakthrough, a new treatment for the mentally ill at a time when such patients had precious few options. Jack El-Hai is author of "The Lobotomist," a book about the American doctor who popularized the procedure in this country.

Mr. JACK EL-HAI (Author, "The Lobotomist"): And so lobotomy, which offered the possibility of a relatively quick blunting of symptoms painlessly, compared with the shock treatments, was something that was greeted with quite a bit of enthusiasm. The early press reports from the '30s and '40s were very enthusiastic about lobotomy.

WEINER: During that period tens of thousands of lobotomies were performed, at first only on those suffering from schizophrenia and severe depression, but later on patients with chronic headaches as well as criminals and even children as young as four years old. Beulah Jones was an adult when she underwent the lobotomy in 1953. Her granddaughter, Christine Johnson, describes what she was like after the procedure.

Ms. CHRISTINE JOHNSON (Beulah Jones' Granddaughter): She was strange because she would do things like rock in place. She didn't make a lot of sense when she talked. And she didn't talk about the same things that other adults talked about. She was--childlike is probably the best description.

WEINER: That was the case with many lobotomy patients. A few were helped by the procedure; their delusions, for instance, were diminished. But many more were left in worse condition than before. Christine Johnson was astonished to learn that the inventor of the lobotomy, Portugese neurologist Egas Moniz, was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1949. That legitimized the procedure in the minds of many doctors and led to a dramatic increase in the number of lobotomies performed around the world. Again, Christine Johnson.

Ms. JOHNSON: There were a lot of critics back then, but when he won the prize, they were all silenced. My grandmother was lobotomized in '53. So I believe that if he had not been awarded the prize in '49, that she and many other patients would have been spared the operation.

WEINER: Johnson and a few dozen other relatives of lobotomy patients want the Nobel Foundation to posthumously revoke Egas Moniz's prize. That's never been done before and seems like a long shot this time; a `non-starter' is how a Nobel Foundation official describes Johnson's proposal. Many medical historians agree, it would be a mistake to revoke the prize. Author Jack El-Hai.

Mr. EL-HAI: When you revoke an award, you're saying that the recipient did something wrong. I don't believe that Egas Moniz did something wrong. He proposed a treatment which, in the march of time, has turned out not to be effective, especially compared with modern treatments. But that's often the case with medical innovations.

WEINER: And today's medical breakthrough, says El-Hai, might be considered tomorrow's barbarisms, a fact often highlighted in the world of science fiction. In the movie "Star Trek IV," Dr. McCoy, aka Bones, is appalled by the techniques used by a late 20th century doctor.

(Soundbite from "Star Trek IV")

Unidentified Man: A simple evacuation of the expanding epidural hematoma will relieve the pressure.

Mr. DeFOREST KELLEY: (As Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy): My God, man, drilling holes in his head's not the answer. The artery must be repaired. Now put away your butcher knives and let me save this patient before it's too late.

Professor BARRON LERNER (Professor, Columbia University Medical School): As someone who teaches the history of medicine to medical students, that is the first lesson that we teach, which is humility.

WEINER: That's Barron Lerner, a professor of public health at Columbia University's Medical School. He says that many of today's cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy, might not be looked upon so kindly by tomorrow's historians.

Prof. LERNER: Certainly people are winning awards for these sorts of things now. And, yeah, 50 years from now if they realize that there were other ways we might have treated it and that chemotherapy was doing more harm than good and that sort of thing, sure, people could look back and say, `What were those people thinking?'

WEINER: What they were thinking--what we are thinking, says Lerner--is the same thing that Egas Moniz was thinking when he developed the lobotomy half a century ago: Do whatever is possible to help the sick, a motivation that unfortunately conflicts with another sacred duty of all doctors: Do no harm. Eric Weiner, NPR News.

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