The common historic narrative of the post-WWII years is that the Americans returning home from overseas easily rejoined the society they fought for and moved forward into the optimistic 1950s. In reality, so many of those men returning from the European and Pacific theaters of war were plagued with mental illness. Uncertain how to treat their ailments, doctors employed by the US government often lobotomized those veterans.
In 2013, the Wall Street Journal unearthed a cache of government documents chronicling the lobotomies performed at Veterans Administration hospitals across the nation from 1947 to 1950, used to treat everything from the common post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia to the less-common cases of homosexuality. It’s believed that at least 2,000 veterans were lobotomized in these years, and probably hundreds more.
Medical use of the lobotomy, an outdated procedure in which doctors severed the brains connections to its prefrontal cortex often by using an ice-pick-like device inserted through a patient’s nostril, reached its unfortunate peak in the postwar decades. Lobotomies occassionally did relieve the symptoms they were meant to relieve. More often they simply created more, turning veterans into overgrown children prone to impaired motor skills, amnesia and seizures.
WSJ interviewed one of the few lobotomized veterans still alive to speak of the experience, former bomber pilot Roman Tritz:
“They got the notion they were going to come to give me a lobotomy,” says Mr. Tritz, a World War II bomber pilot. “To hell with them.”
The orderlies at the veterans hospital pinned Mr. Tritz to the floor, he recalls. He fought so hard that eventually they gave up. But the orderlies came for him again on Wednesday, July 1, 1953, a few weeks before his 30th birthday.
This time, the doctors got their way.
Aside from lobotomy, Tritz was a victim of many of the VA’s most experimental treatments. He was put into an insulin-induced temporary coma, once thought to relieve symptoms, and endured 28 rounds of electroschock therapy, a treatment so intense patients sometimes break their bones due to convulsions. Another treatment Tritz and other veterans were subjected to was being sprayed with high-pressure streams of water, alternating between hot and cold temperatures.
Lobotomy was a last resort most of the time. While up to 20,000 lobotomies were performed in the US alone by 1951, the VA considered itself relatively conservative with the procedure. Although many doctors opposed the controversial surgery, Dr. Walter J. Freeman became an unlikely champion of the procedure, once proclaiming that “a world that once seemed the abode of misery, cruelty and hate is now radiant with sunshine and kindness to [veterans].”
“You couldn’t help but have the feeling that the medical community was impotent at that point,” says Elliot Valenstein, 89, a World War II veteran and psychiatrist who worked at the Topeka, Kan., VA hospital in the early 1950s. According to Valenstein, the doctors then “were prone to try anything.”
In response to the WSJ article in 2013, the VA issued a response statement downplaying their involvement, stating “the procedure became available to severely ill patients who had not improved with other treatments” and that the procedure became outdated within a few years, when the first antipsychotic drug, Thorazine, was invented. The VA did not acknowledge that the procedure was not just “available,” but often forced upon veterans against their will.
You can read more on the men who endured lobotomies and other injustices at the hands of the US government over at the WSJ website. It’s a fascinating, heartbreaking read.