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Forgotten soldiers
December 11, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Veterans Administration hospitals performed lobotomies on more than 2,000 mentally ill soldiers during and after World War II. Today, the Wall Street Journal published the first part of a story extensively documenting the lives of the men who underwent this procedure, and those who performed it.
posted by Horace Rumpole (23 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh Metafilter, you know just how to make me weep at work.
That said, truly, thanks for posting this.
posted by The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg at 9:55 AM on December 11, 2013


One of the most poignant parts of this for me is the "Lucky Bastard" certificate, given to those who survived their last mission and went home.

Lucky indeed. A heavy reminder that no-one truly escapes from war.
posted by greenish at 10:24 AM on December 11, 2013


Holy crap, there's still guys are still alive after this.

This sounds like the kind of thing that might have happened after the Civil War, not WWII.
posted by ignignokt at 10:25 AM on December 11, 2013


It always sobers me somewhat to recall that the inventor of the lobotomy won the Nobel Prize for it. All medicine is basically a gamble, weighing what we believe to be the positives against the negatives that we hope we've figured out.
posted by Etrigan at 10:33 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


This book is heartbreaking, and I strongly advise you not look at the pictures if you have kids, but powerful stuff.
posted by davejay at 10:45 AM on December 11, 2013


Here's something I don't understand. This is generally a very good and sympathetic piece. But in describing the reliability of their main subject, they say this:

"Mr. Tritz is sometimes an unreliable narrator of his life story. He describes himself as “mentally injured, not mentally ill.” For decades he has meandered into delusions and paranoid views about government conspiracies."

What? After he risked his life for them, flying a bomber over Nazi Europe, the government inserted an ice pick through his eye sockets and took out part of his brain. If something like this had happened to me, I'd believe every conspiracy theory in the books, because none of them is stranger than that.
posted by downing street memo at 10:57 AM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


The horror of this treatment is undeniable, but these doctors were not performing these procedures out of some sadistic whimsy or cavalier experimentation. They were trying to help damaged men, and they obtained consent in line with accepted procedures of the day. It was the best science available. At 60 years remove we recoil at the details -- just as those doctors were appalled by leeches and bleedings, and as future generations (hopefully) will shake their heads at the crudeness of irradiating patients to treat their cancers.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:17 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Imagine someone a century from now marveling at the fact that many veterans of the war in Iraq were given chemicals that altered their brain chemistry.
posted by Etrigan at 11:19 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


stupidsexyFlanders: It was the best science available. At 60 years remove we recoil at the details -- just as those doctors were appalled by leeches and bleedings, and as future generations (hopefully) will shake their heads at the crudeness of irradiating patients to treat their cancers.

It seems kind of objectionable to compare a treatment that is scientifically proven and quite effective (if distasteful) with techniques that either did nothing but harm the patient, or did more harm than good.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:54 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems kind of objectionable to compare a treatment that is scientifically proven and quite effective (if distasteful) with techniques that either did nothing but harm the patient, or did more harm than good.

I hate the FTFY thing, so I'll just point out that if you add "which we now know but did not at the time" to the end there, it becomes significantly less objectionable.
posted by Etrigan at 11:57 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Imagine someone a century from now marveling at the fact that many veterans of the war in Iraq were given chemicals that altered their brain chemistry.

Congratulations, this is the most misguided and needlessly inflammatory statement I have seen on the internet.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 12:22 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Imagine someone a century from now marveling at the fact that many veterans of the war in Iraq were given chemicals that altered their brain chemistry.

Congratulations, this is the most misguided and needlessly inflammatory statement I have seen on the internet.


Get back to me in a century and we'll talk about how bad it was.

I'm not against chemical intervention -- I have close personal friends with PTSD that it has helped immensely. But there were people at the time who appeared to be helped immensely by lobotomies. Sneering at the very idea that such a thing could have happened in a civilized society and using inflammatory language to describe it -- as I did to mirror someone else's comment -- ignores the fact that a lot of medical treatment is pretty gruesome but is done because we don't have anything pretty that works as well.
posted by Etrigan at 12:33 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


My biggest problem with that statement is that it sounds pretty good and sciency but it's not what you thought you were saying. It's actually nonsense. Everything you do changes your brain chemistry.

Better not drink that latte, buddy! You'll change your brain chemistry!
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 12:57 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Medical treatments will always get better in the future. The problem is people are ill now.
posted by tommasz at 1:11 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The main story here is about power, not health.
posted by stonepharisee at 1:22 PM on December 11, 2013


My biggest problem with that statement is that it sounds pretty good and sciency but it's not what you thought you were saying. It's actually nonsense. Everything you do changes your brain chemistry.

And you're absolutely positive that in a hundred years, doing so intentionally won't be held up as an example of how primitive medicine was in the year 2013? I envy you your certainty.
posted by Etrigan at 1:27 PM on December 11, 2013


The main story here is about power, not health.

I think you're onto something. There are issues of medical agency, more or less automatic consent and experimentation by powers-that-be that remain an issue today, such as those relevant to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars coming home with Gulf War syndrome. What was done to Tritz was symptomatic of this kind of abuse of power.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:58 PM on December 11, 2013


The horror of this treatment is undeniable, but these doctors were not performing these procedures out of some sadistic whimsy or cavalier experimentation. They were trying to help damaged men, and they obtained consent in line with accepted procedures of the day. It was the best science available. At 60 years remove we recoil at the details -- just as those doctors were appalled by leeches and bleedings, and as future generations (hopefully) will shake their heads at the crudeness of irradiating patients to treat their cancers.

Walter Freeman had no formal surgical training yet personally performed 3000+ lobotomies in his time, often out of his lobotomobile. The victims were often from oppressed groups like "hysterical" women or gay people. Freeman was pretty much a living definition of cavalier.
posted by kmz at 2:09 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


You can't paint everybody performing this surgery as a Walter Freeman clone. He was an extreme individual by anybody's lights. And you have to agree that a world where someone could perform surgery out of a "lobotomobiile" -- and a world where GWU would retain that individual as head of its neurology department-- that's not the same world we live in today. My point is that it's a unfair to judge the past by the standards and the science of the present.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 2:26 PM on December 11, 2013


Better not drink that latte, buddy! You'll change your brain chemistry!

What? Coffee is pure goodness, unbridled, forever. Doesn't have anything to do with weird stuff like "brain chemistry".
posted by telstar at 3:10 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hindsight is always 100%.

My sister would be alive today if they knew in 1977 what they know now about the brain, Type I diabetes and epilepsy. When this poor man underwent a lobotomy, it was considered the safest, kindest way to treat people who were damaged from illness or trauma such that they were in terrible anxiety and fear and confusion - and there was NO medication to help them. Was it kinder to tie them down, put them in straightjackets, remove their teeth so they couldn't bite, wrestle them down when they got out of control? Really?

I have to compare the DBS (deep brain stimulation) done today as a NEW treatment for Parkinson's. Is there really a significant difference? Given the knowledge that we have and the tools that we have, it's an option which is helpful to a lot of patients. Given the knowledge that they had in the 1940s and the tools, lobotomy was not an unreasonable option, either.

I wonder, in fact, if the fact that Mr. Tritz is, at the age of 90, able to live in his own apartment independently, follow a routine that keeps him fed and clean and feeling as though he's in control of his own life - if that fact might not be partially a result of that lobotomy of so many years ago. I say this because I had a friend who passed away five years ago who had paranoid schizophrenia to the degree that he thought Russians were going to come up in submarines in the local aquifer and destroy us; he would come to my house late at night wanting me to run with him to the mountains. He had been schizophrenic since his youth and he died when he was 43 after countless hospitalizations and medicines over all the years. He had joined the military but been discharged quietly when his mental illness became obvious - I kept his military records and medical records "safe" for him.

Paranoid schizophrenia is an awful disease. My friend Ed had undergone electroconvulsive therapy and insulin therapy on numerous occasions; each time there was benefit for a little while, but each time the disease came back with a vengeance.

I'm sorry he's living with the paranoia, but I'm glad he's living on his own and managing at the same time.
posted by aryma at 9:09 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


The author is currently doing an Iama on reddit regarding the work
posted by Blasdelb at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2013


Building “The Lobotomy Files”: How the Wall Street Journal cobbled together a CMS and built the project.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:24 AM on December 17, 2013


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