A less honorable way of expressing oneself on lobotomy

Kenneth ÖGREN
University of Umeå, Sweden

“Recently, doctors started using a procedure in which a hole is drilled in the skull of the patient, thereafter a knife is inserted into the holes and than it is whipped around in the brain until the frontal lobes stops to function.”

The above quotation was published in 1947, in Sweden, in the Tidens Kalender, a widely distributed year book that among other important societal subjects covered science and medicine. Professor Gunnar Dahlberg, a well-respected chief of the Swedish Race Biology Institute, edited Tidens Kalender. Since the end of the 1930s, besides his work as a physician and researcher within the Institute, Dahlberg was a well-known publisher of popular texts on medical matters.

Why did Dahlberg define psychosurgery in this way? In 1949, the year of the nomination of Moniz for the Nobel Prize in medicine, a Swedish pioneer of lobotomy, the psychiatrist, Dr Snorre Wohlfahrt, in collaboration with the neurosurgeon Olof Sjöqvist, reacted sharply to Dahlberg’s definition of lobotomy. These two professionals joined together in short but strong criticism of Professor Dahlberg’s crude description of the procedure that would soon become honored by the Nobel committee. It is conceivable that two lobotomists spoke out against a colleague who used sloppy language about what they regarded an established new method in medicine. But, it is less understandable why Professor Dahlberg chose to belittle lobotomy in the way he did.

This paper is aimed at an analysis of what might have been a kind of psychosurgery debate in Sweden hidden within some popular publications.

Session V
Wednesday, 5 July 2005, 9.00 - 9.30 am

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005