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"Adjusting" people: conceptions of the self in psychosurgery after World War II


Meier, Marietta (2009). "Adjusting" people: conceptions of the self in psychosurgery after World War II. Medicine studies, 1(4):353-366.

Abstract

Between 1935 and 1970, tens of thousands of people worldwide underwent brain operations due to psychiatric indication that were intended to positively influence their mental state and behaviour. The majority of these psychosurgical procedures were prefrontal lobotomies. Developed in 1935, the procedure initially met with fierce opposition, but was introduced in numerous countries in the following decade, and was employed up until the late 1960s. This article investigates why psychosurgery was widely accepted after World War II. It examines the effects it was hoped psychosurgical intervention would have, the undesired outcomes in which the method could potentially result, and the significance these outcomes were given. The analysis of scientific articles of the period as well as one case study show that the goal of the operation was, first and foremost, to help the mentally ill adapt to the social order inside and outside the mental institution. After initial criticism, changes in personality, severe physical side-effects and death were accepted in order to reach this goal. Thus, with psychosurgical intervention the social adjustment of patients, also in their own interest, was rated higher than physical and psychic integrity. This widely held view shows that after World War II a post-bourgeoise order of the subject dominated, according to which an individual was to adapt and to function in the interests of the collective. According to the assumption, the triumph of lobotomy was related to the development of a new conception of the self that made possible a broad implementation of the procedure and that was consolidated through psychosurgery.

Between 1935 and 1970, tens of thousands of people worldwide underwent brain operations due to psychiatric indication that were intended to positively influence their mental state and behaviour. The majority of these psychosurgical procedures were prefrontal lobotomies. Developed in 1935, the procedure initially met with fierce opposition, but was introduced in numerous countries in the following decade, and was employed up until the late 1960s. This article investigates why psychosurgery was widely accepted after World War II. It examines the effects it was hoped psychosurgical intervention would have, the undesired outcomes in which the method could potentially result, and the significance these outcomes were given. The analysis of scientific articles of the period as well as one case study show that the goal of the operation was, first and foremost, to help the mentally ill adapt to the social order inside and outside the mental institution. After initial criticism, changes in personality, severe physical side-effects and death were accepted in order to reach this goal. Thus, with psychosurgical intervention the social adjustment of patients, also in their own interest, was rated higher than physical and psychic integrity. This widely held view shows that after World War II a post-bourgeoise order of the subject dominated, according to which an individual was to adapt and to function in the interests of the collective. According to the assumption, the triumph of lobotomy was related to the development of a new conception of the self that made possible a broad implementation of the procedure and that was consolidated through psychosurgery.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Institute of History
Dewey Decimal Classification:900 History
Language:English
Date:2009
Deposited On:23 Feb 2010 09:00
Last Modified:05 Apr 2016 13:56
Publisher:Springer
ISSN:1876-4533
Publisher DOI:10.1007/s12376-009-0029-1
Permanent URL: http://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-30971

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