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Give That Man a Prize

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By Grant Davies

On a day just like this, back about fifty years after the 1880s, perhaps circa 1930-ish, a professor at the University of Lisbon decided to do some science.

Before we move on to the actual story, I think it’s best to explain how such a precisely imprecise date was arrived upon. I used a calculator. And I guessed at the figures. The 1880s had some meaning for where to start counting, but I’m probably not going to tell you why, just because.

But who cares anyway? It’s not actual history, it’s Cheeky History. Exact dates require research I’m loath to do.

Anyway, the guy’s name was Egas Moniz and he was a scientist, kind of. A former politician, (a republican, lower case) he was a professor of neurology at the above named University. He formed a hypothesis about where in the brain mental illnesses of various kinds originated and how to treat them. Based on the work of others back in the 1880s he decided it was in the frontal lobe of the brain. (Okay, I guess I slipped and told you about the 1880s part, darn it!) So he decided to see if destroying that part of the brain would cure these illnesses. They called the surgical procedure leucotomy. We know it today by a different name. More on that later.

Unfortunately, his scientific method was anything but scientific. According to Bill Bryson in his new book “The Body” (paraphrased), Moniz had no idea what the outcome might be or what damage might be done to the patient. No experiments were done on animals first and he was pretty careless about which patients he chose. (At least one died in an earlier attempt.) He also didn’t follow-up well on what the outcomes were. Additionally, he didn’t perform the surgeries himself but was keen to take credit for any that were claimed to be successful.

When scientists do science poorly the outcome usually is apparent to scientists who do science well. That can lead to derision and a loss of stature, not to mention income. But that didn’t happen to Egas.

Instead, in 1949, he was awarded, (you guessed it) the Nobel Prize. It was for “his discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses.” (Wikipedia)

In other words, some of his patients improved a bit on the mental illness they had. Unfortunately they turned into zombies. Perhaps if he had hit them in the head with a shovel it might have had the same effect. At least he didn’t do that.

I don’t want to be too hard on him considering the times he lived in. But if he can get a Nobel Prize for crummy science why can’t I get a Pulitzer Prize for crummy writing?

To celebrate all the crazy surgeries performed by the others who followed in his lab coats, just slip on down to the “Weird Science Lounge” and when the bartender asks “what’ll you have?”  Just tell him, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

Inspiration for this story came from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, “The Body” – “A Guide for Occupants” 

A Sideways Look At What Really Happened On This Day In History.


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