Psychosurgery and veterans

The Wall Street Journal has recently published a series about the use of lobotomy on World War II veterans.

Featured in the series was veteran Roman Tritz, now in his nineties, who had flown B17 bombers from Deopham Green airfield near Attleborough in Norfolk, and had been lobotomized shortly before his 30th birthday. He had previously been treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

In Britain too, men (and possibly women too) who had been traumatized by their war-time service were lobotomized, although in Britain the operation was called a leucotomy rather than a lobotomy. Since there is nothing akin to the Veterans Administration in Britain it is impossible to say how many. The Wall Street Journal put the number of lobotomized veterans in the United States at over 2,000. Britain, given the difference in population, actually used the operation at a greater rate than the United States. By the late 1950s an estimated 20,000 leucotomies had been carried out in Britain.

One of those operated on was Arthur Collings. The son of a shipwright, he was a draughtsman in the Admiralty (a reserved occupation) but he nevertheless volunteered to serve as a navigator in the RAF Pathfinders and flew missions out of Oakington airfield near Cambridge. In June 1943 his plane was shot down over Germany and he spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp, where he appears to have had a breakdown. On his return to England he was given a leucotomy. In 1955 he committed suicide, leaving a wife who was seven months pregnant. Their son is the art critic Matthew Collins.

Another man who volunteered from a reserved profession was printer Harold Smith. (This is what he is called in Ben Shephard’s book, A war of nerves: soldiers and psychiatrists in the 20th century, Jonathan Cape, 2000 – I don’t know if it is his real name). He took part in the D-day Normandy landings in a tank and saw action over the next few months, before being injured in the foot. After the war he received psychiatric treatment, including ECT and, in 1947, a leucotomy. His psychiatrist was William Sargant; the surgeon was Wylie McKissock. Six months after the operation William Sargant reported that it had been successful, but Ben Shephard found that Harold Smith was missing from a further follow-up survey. He writes: “Perhaps Harold Smith was lucky. Perhaps his was one of those dramatic cases which for so long blinded doctors to the dreadful after-effects of leucotomy. Perhaps he never needed to see the doctor again and was able to lead a happy and contented life.” (page 338)

Other leucotomized patients had been affected by the war, even if they had not been on active service. Several appear in Maurice Partridge’s 1950 book Prefrontal Leucotomy: survey of 300 cases personally followed over 1½ – 3 years: a woman bombed out of her home who found it difficult to settle in a new area; a nursing sister who broke down under the stress of trying to protect her patients during bombing raids; a widow who found it difficult to cope when her son was posted overseas; a blind man who became obsessive about switching off lights after being prosecuted for contravening blackout regulations; a prostitute who was arrested and certified after being found sleeping on War Department land.

One of the first people to undergo a leucotomy in England was a veteran of the First World War who had been traumatised by having to deal with the aftermath of a direct hit on an air-raid shelter in Bristol. He was committed to the Burden Neurological Institute on 15 February 1941 and four days later was operated on. Writing in The Lancet (Results of prefrontal leucotomy, 20 March 1943, 362-66) Effie Hutton described him in the following terms: “Neurosis. Nervous wreck wince 1914-18 war. Often off work, reserved, solitary, self absorbed. Acute attacks, anxiety precipitated by air raid. Confused, depressed, unable to concentrate, unable to do anything”. After the operation he was described as “Indifferent to air raids. Content, cheerful, working as a general labourer”.

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