The Hidden Gender of Lobotomy: Women & Mental Illness in Mid-20th Century United States

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.

Barbara Kruger’s “No Radio” is a commentary on men’s medical/surgical control over women’s bodies.

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.

-Kristy Staniszewski

3 thoughts on “The Hidden Gender of Lobotomy: Women & Mental Illness in Mid-20th Century United States

  1. I am so happy to hear that research has been done on this particular topic. It is especially disturbing to me that the rise in popularity of lobotomies, the changing (read: more independent) role of women to the supposed detriment of men at the time, and the end of WWII, all coincide with each other. Considering all of the policies implemented at the time which attempted to indirectly force women back into traditional roles, I have to wonder at the pervasiveness of the lobotomy procedure on women, where her own consent was not required for it to be performed.

    I eagerly await the results of a study such as this.

  2. Interestingly most women who were submitted to mind-altering procedures were driven to tormenting circumstances placed on them by none other than philandering spouses or abusive guardians/parents!
    Beside myself with the barbaric nature of a beast who notoriously has power!

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