The issue has resurfaced following the release of a new book that contends the crude brain surgery only helped about 10 percent of the estimated 50,000 Americans who received lobotomies from the mid-1930s to the 1970s.
In an editorial in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Barron H. Lerner, a medical historian and associate professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, wrote that the procedure was a desperate effort to help mental patients and that only a small number of patients became calmer and more manageable.
"I think the numbers that were harmed were quite substantial," Lerner said in an interview. "It was way overused, and it was used in inappropriate circumstances — retardation, anxiety, headaches."
Relatives of patients who underwent the procedure agree. They are pushing the Nobel Foundation to posthumously strip the prize given to the lobotomy's pioneer, Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz.
"How can anyone trust the Nobel Committee when they won't admit to such a terrible mistake?" asks Christine Johnson, a Levittown, N.Y., medical librarian who started a campaign to have the prize revoked.