This happened during the civil rights era, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Poverty, injustice, and the assassinations of icons like Martin Luther King brought many to the streets, much as the Black Lives Matter movement has done in recent years. Doctors from institutions like Yale, Tulane, and Harvard tied brain disease, in cynicism and racism, to the then-termed “race riots.”
None of this was done in secret. In 1969, the flagship Journal of the American Medical Association published a joint letter by three doctors, Frank Ervin, Vernon Mark, and William Sweet, all of whom worked in psychiatric surgery. Riots were related to social problems, they said, but that shouldn’t blind medicine to the “more subtle role of other possible factors, like brain dysfunction.”
Curing So-Called “Brain Dysfunction” with Psychiatric Surgery
Was there a remedy to this “brain dysfunction”? Yes, there was, and it was already being implemented. Open the brains of those defined as “violent,” zap them with electrodes, or just remove brain tissue to quell the anger. Brain manipulation caught the attention of government agencies, law enforcement, even Life magazine. Congress funded research.
Some procedures planted metal wire in the brain. These electrodes could supposedly scan brain activity to find “suspicious” areas that might harbor violent tendencies, a process as iffy as it sounds. Electrical pulses could destroy suspect tissue.
Or electrodes could be permanent. Stimulating them can create anger, arousal, and docility. Some psychosurgeries just cut into the brain, attacking sites like the emotional amygdala and the hypothalamus. Operations like these were meant to fix that “brain dysfunction” or “discontrol syndrome” of human anger—anger that leads to actions.
Psychosurgeons also worked on prisoners—operating, experimenting. Dr. Hunter Brown suggested all prisoners convicted of violent crime should be offered “corrective” surgery. Then as now, prison populations were disproportionately people of color. Most would understand such surgery as a path toward release.
Brown wasn’t the only surgeon with ambitions. Yale’s Spanish-born Jose Delgado called for a country-wide program as large as NASA to “screen” the population and cure the bad-brained early.
Delgado wrote in his book Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society (yes, that’s a real title) that “submissive” enslaved people who “worked hard” were “probably happier than some of the free blacks in modern ghettos.”
How Psychiatry Was Weaponized Against LGBTQ+ People
A paper by psychosurgeon Robert Heath, co-written with Charles E. Moan, gives a case of psychosurgery as a form of conversion therapy. It appeared in a journal of experimental psychiatry in 1972. The title: “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.”
Heath had his subject, known as B-19, watch heterosexual porn while getting pleasure centers stimulated. In his paper, he listed B-19’s preferred sexual positions, along with his finding that the man was “in no way” in gesture or posture “effeminate.” Heath brought a woman he described as a “21-year-old prostitute” to the lab, so B-19 could have his septal region stimulated while having sex with her.
The year Heath’s paper came out, a man in a frizzed wig, Nixon mask, and oversized suit was introduced to an American Psychiatric Association meeting as “Dr. Henry Anonymous.” At the time, the psychiatric bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), listed homosexuality as a disease.
“I am a homosexual,” said Dr. Anonymous. “I am a psychiatrist.” B-19 and Henry Anonymous, two veiled men trying to live their sexuality, came before the eyes of thousands of doctors within the same year. In 1973, homosexuality as a disease category was removed from the DSM.
Taking Back the Power of Definition
When I talk about complicating normal, I talk about complicating definitions. Dorothea Buck, a Nazi sterilization victim and a psychiatric activist, posed a question to members of the World Psychiatric Association: What would happen if “instead of you—the psychiatrists—we [patients] had the power to define” ourselves? Buck, like bipolar me, rejected the disease model (her diagnosis was schizophrenia).
If the language of mental states as illness fits your inner life, use it. Just own the definition. Deciding what is ill and what is well is a constant act of interpretation. Some in medicine argue we should start defining old age as a disease, as it’s a “negative state” for the body. Others disagree.
Racism, homophobia, misogyny—these are evils with a thousand faces. I talk about addressing one. That’s the ability to dismiss unpopular human behavior as physical malfunction, by taking the power of definition away from those having an experience to those who watch it.
As a psychiatric historian once told me, once you call a condition a disease of the brain, you have to do something to the brain. History has a lot to teach us about the problem of the normal.
This content was originally published here.