It’s not clear who first quipped “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” but it’s not just a joke. Almost anything would be preferable to a frontal lobotomy. It was a barbarous procedure with catastrophic consequences, and yet it was once widely accepted and even earned a Portuguese doctor a Nobel Prize. In the annals of medical history, it stands out as one of medicine’s biggest mistakes and an example of how disastrously things can go wrong when a treatment is put into widespread use before it has been adequately tested.
A new book by Janet Sternburg, White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine, puts a human face on the suffering of mentally ill patients and their families, and helps us understand why they agreed to lobotomies. It is the affecting story of how her relatives made the difficult but misinformed decision to lobotomize two of her mother’s five siblings, one for schizophrenia and the other for depression, and the consequences of that decision.