Echoes of the Soul: A Rhetorical History of Lobotomy

Open Access
Johnson, Jenell M.
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 16, 2008
Committee Members:
  • Susan Merrill Squier, Committee Chair
  • Michael Francis Berube, Committee Member
  • Rosa A Eberly, Committee Member
  • Stephen Howard Browne, Committee Member
  • rhetoric of Science
  • lobotomy
Using critical techniques drawn from rhetorical studies, science studies, and cultural studies, Echoes of the Soul: A Rhetorical History of Lobotomy examines one of the most controversial chapters in American medicine by analyzing its rhetorical life in biomedical and popular discourses. Rather than divide these sites of discursive production, this project uses their points of articulation to explore the reciprocal relationship between biomedicine and other forms of culture. Echoes of the Soul first argues for the contribution of a rhetorical perspective to the history of medicine, and then presents lobotomy as a compelling case study. Chapter 2 troubles the demarcation between clinical practice and biomedical research by analyzing the arguments for lobotomy’s contribution to neurophysiology in Walter Freeman and James Watts’ Psychosurgery (1942). The next two chapters trace lobotomy’s rise and fall in American medicine by positioning this trajectory next to the shifting evaluation of the operation in popular discourse from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Chapter 3 analyzes lobotomy’s articulation with anticommunist fictions (novels and films, the “brainwashing” panic, and ultraconservative conspiracy theory) in order to argue for a broader contextualization of lobotomy’s displacement by psychopharmacology in the mid-1950s. Chapter 4 examines the rise and fall of lobotomy in the popular press by connecting shifting arguments for its efficacy with a concomitant shift in the gender of case histories used as evidence for its success or failure. The dissertation’s final chapters explore the use of lobotomy as a mnemonic trope in public debates over other forms of psychiatric neurosurgery. Chapter 5 looks at the rhetorical “return” of lobotomy in public campaigns against psychosurgery in the early 1970s, and Chapter 6 concludes with an analysis of the use of lobotomy as a rhetorical-historical device in recent press coverage of vagus nerve and deep brain stimulation. Ultimately, Echoes of the Soul shows how biomedicine interacts rhetorically with other forms of culture and argues that this interaction shapes biomedical development, the construction of a useable medical past, and the ethical commitments that guide our vision for medicine’s future.