Summer, smoke and lobotomy | Science

Summer, smoke and lobotomy | Science


The playwright Tennessee Williams he lived madness closely. Also its consequences. Without going any further, his sister Rose would be permanently disabled by a lobotomy, a surgical technique that involves trepanning the brain with the help of a needle and thus remove the nerves until they jump inside. Tennessee Williams would never get over it.

Perhaps, to practice exorcism with memory and especially with the little blue devils of madness, as he called them, Tennessee Williams was inspired by this surgical technique. With this, he shaped a turbulent and exquisite work. Your title: Suddenly last summer; a sexual metaphor where confession and guilt meet the truth serum under the shadow of a lobotomy.

Representation of 'Suddenly, the last summer'.
Representation of 'Suddenly, the last summer'.

In the aforementioned work, one of the characters is Dr. Cukrowicz, a doctor who speaks with poetic language not exempt from perfidy and with which he plays the figures using "the sharp knife in the brain (…) that kills the Devil in the soul". Undoubtedly, it is an operation that involves a great risk. To operate in the brain lobe requires a rare combination of effort and fineness not suitable for all pulses.

The lobotomy requires a technique that comes from old. One of its pioneers, the Swiss psychiatrist Johann Gottlieb Burckhardt carried out in 1888 the experiment with six patients. Two did not show changes and of the four remaining one died and the other three improved just a little. Years later, at the beginning of the 20th century, following in the footsteps of Burckhardt, an Estonian neurosurgeon named Ludvig Puusepp carried out many other operations and it seems that he did not end up being very convinced with the results. It was still a few years before the renowned Portuguese neurosurgeon Antonio Egas Moniz disseminated the technique of lobotomy as an effective solution to mental illness. A surgery that did not cure the cause although the symptoms did.

In between, Yale University had managed to tame some chimpanzees by removing their frontal and prefrontal lobes. These results were what led Moniz to take the surgical operation as a curative possibility and with it he applied the technique to humans. The operation consisted in finishing the cell connection adjustments that link the brain. To achieve this, it is necessary to drill, first, to then inject ethyl alcohol into the white matter; in this way, according to Moniz, the fibers responsible for madness were destroyed.

Antonio Egas Moniz worked with an instrument in the form of a tube about 2 centimeters in diameter and from which a sharp ring was detached which, by rotating it, sectioned portions of the brain. Looking at it like that, it was no more than a perfidious drill that entered the temple and was called Leucotomo. In 1949 Moniz would get the Nobel Prize.

Summer, smoke and lobotomy

From then on, his technique would spread throughout the West and, especially, in Italy, where Dr. Amarro Fiamberti retouched the technique to reach the frontal lobes of the brain without going through the temple. He got it by piercing the inside of the eye sockets. This method would be faster and easier, and was the one used by American doctor Walter Jackson Freeman, famous for operations that the press described as "ice punch." It seems that to exercise, the aforementioned doctor used a punch of the ones he had for the ice, practicing this way with grapefruit first and then doing it with corpses. These previous exercises are told in an agile and entertaining way by Alessandra Carrer and Luigi Garlaschelli in their work The "mad scientist" (Alliance).

In the end, Jackson Freeman commissioned to build an instrument more apparent than the ice pick and which he named Orbitoclasto. It is possible to imagine that, with one of these orbitoclastos, through the ocular orbits, they punctured the nerves of the sister of Tennessee Williams. It is also possible that the dramatist, driven by pain, wrote those verses: "Rose, his head cut open, a knife throbbing in his brain, I, here, smoking."

No doubt, not being able to prevent the lobotomy of his sister Rose was the great failure of Tennessee Williams. Today, lobotomy is a discredited technique.

The stone ax It's a section where Montero Glez, with a desire for prose, exercises its particular siege on scientific reality to show that science and art are complementary forms of knowledge.

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