JOHN KIRSCH is an editor for an English-language publishing company in Mazatlan, Mexico. Prior to moving to Mexico, Kirsch worked as a reporter and occasional photographer for newspapers in Iowa and Texas. He has a B.A. in journalism from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and an A.A. in photography from Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa.
Ten years ago, my mother told me that Grandma Kirsch had a lobotomy in Cherokee. She said it just like that, without pointing out that the lobotomy had actually taken place at the state mental hospital in Cherokee, Iowa. The news resonated with me because I had recently checked myself into a mental hospital in the Fort Worth, Texas, area after suffering a bad panic attack brought on by job stress. I left after three days but the depression lingered and isolated me from family and friends. In retrospect I think my mother was trying to say, okay, you were in a mental hospital for a few days but that was nothing compared to what Grandma Kirsch (whose first name was Lurine) went through.
My mother’s decision to reveal this family secret made me want to find out more about my grandmother, who now seemed like a kindred spirit in the family. My research has been a process of rediscovery, although many aspects of her experience remain unclear to me. So I keep visiting the hospital in Cherokee to make photographs and ask questions.
In May 1954, a board called the Commissioners of Insanity of Pottawattamie County (Council Bluffs is the county seat) found Lurine to be insane and authorized her commitment to the mental hospital in Cherokee. Her initial complaint was, “I just can’t control the world anymore.”
Doctors at Cherokee performed a lobotomy on Lurine in July 1954. They used an electroshock machine to put her in a coma. Then they performed a transorbital lobotomy on her.
The doctor who performed the lobotomy, George Hajworonsky, a 34-year-old resident in psychiatry, used a long, needle-like instrument and perhaps a mallet to enter Lurine’s frontal lobe through her eye sockets. Each time he moved the needle-like instrument around to cut brain tissue. The procedure took three minutes.
Afterwards, the doctors determined that Lurine had made a remarkable recovery.
“Patient’s husband [Tony] told the writer in an interview that he was very impressed by his wife’s warm affect, and the real interest in her home she seemed to have developed. He stated that he had never seen her so good during the last years."
My family’s consensus is that the lobotomy worked—the behavior that so disturbed Tony and the doctors went away.
My attitude is more ambivalent. Considering the risks involved, the “cure” seems worse than the disease. Even the Soviets, not known for their respect for human rights, banned lobotomy as “contrary to the principles of humanity.”
By the mid-1950s, administrators and doctors believed they had adopted modern drug- and therapy-based methods that represented progress over the unenlightened practices of the past. At the same time lobotomies continued to be performed, as my grandmother’s experience shows. "In the light of knowledge, fear and stigma will disappear as scientific diagnosis and treatment is promptly and adequately applied. Then, and only then, will America have forever closed its dungeons." (from a biennial report on Iowa's mental institutions to the state Legislature in 1956.)
Strait jackets were utilized up until the early 50s, at which time they were discontinued. In 1954, the drug Thorazine became widely used, which started the patient census decline. (from "Cherokee Mental Health, 100 Years of Serving Iowans")
Patient rooms were typically furnished with a bed, nightstand, wash basin, towel and drying rack, chamber pot and storage trunk. Day rooms were sparse, always with rocking chairs. The institute was designed to accommodate 1,000 people and opened in 1902 on a site west of Cherokee, Iowa. (from "Cherokee Mental Health, 100 Years of Serving Iowans")