Why was psychosurgery prohibited in the USSR?

Centre for the History of Medicine, Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, Moscow, Russia
licht AT aha.ru

The classical frontal leucotomy of Moniz and Lima was used for treatment of schizophrenia and severe pain in psychiatry and neurosurgery clinics of Soviet Union since 1944. On December 9, 1950 a special decree of the Ministry of Health of the USSR prohibited the use of prefrontal leucotomy for the treatment of neuropsychiatry disorders as «contradicting the basic principles of Pavlov’s physiological theory». It was preceded by a publication in “Pravda” (the Communist Party newspaper) an article entitled “Against one pseudoscientific method of treatment” in “letters to the editor” section. The letter was signed by two provincial doctors who labeled leucotomy as “an example of impotence of bourgeois medicine”. The next day after receiving this publication the Ministry of Health of USSR arranged a special meeting of presidium of Ucheny Meditsinsky Sovet (Scientific Medical Council). My presentation is based upon the unpublished stenograph of this meeting available at the State Archive of Russian Federation. It shows the arguments of proponents and critics of psychosurgery belonging to different schools of psychiatry as well as political (anti-Western and anti-Semitic) context of this discussion. The former (A.S.Shmar’yan, Yu.B. Rozinsky, B.G.Egorov etc.) advocated leucotomy as a method of last resort which is justified by an increasing number of hopeless chronically ill mental patients. The critics (V.A. Gilyarovsky, A.G.Galach’yan, M.V.Solov’eva etc.) compared the results of leucotomy to “ideas of American imperialists, who are looking for robots”. After the decree was published, several leading psychiatrists and neurosurgeons of Jewish origin were fired from their jobs on the pretext of performing leucotomy. It happened less than two years before the so-called “delo vrachei” (“doctors’ affair”, when a group medical doctors mostly of Jewish origin were accused of deliberate putting to death leaders of the Soviet Union).

Session X
Saturday, 24 June 2006, 4.45 - 5.10 pm

11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Pavia, Italy, 2006