The history of mental illness treatment around the world doesn't have a sterling track record. Those committed to mental asylums could expect inhumane treatment -- even in the most advanced countries. Common treatments in the early 1900s ranged from constant, heavy sedation to dangerous electroshock therapy.
However, all of those treatments pale in comparison to the most horrifying and permanent treatment of all: the transorbital lobotomy.
The lobotomy has its roots in early 1900s psychiatric medicine.
Until the 1930s, you might say that doctors attempted to treat the mentally ill with clinical indifference. Most asylums were prisons for the mentally ill with doctors who never attempted to treat the underlying causes of their patients' illnesses. That began to change with experiments in brain surgery around the turn of the century. However, these experiments soon turned from treatment to simply "curing" the mentally ill by incapacitating their brains.
And thus the lobotomy, as we know it today, was born.
Initially, a lobotomy was a surgical procedure that required an operating room, sterile equipment, and anesthesia. A doctor would drill into a patient's skull and then damage (or sever) the connections linking their prefrontal cortex and frontal lobes to the the rest of their brain. The effect would, essentially, erase a patient's personality. The victims of the lobotomies would become obedient vegetables.
...but it gets worse. In 1945, American neuropsychiatrist Walter Freeman made a modification on the traditional lobotomy that took the world by storm.
Freeman, like many of his contemporaries, was enamored by the lobotomy procedure. However, at the time, it was not a widely performed surgery simply because of the facilities needed. While using his household icepick one day, Freeman came up with an idea. Instead of drilling into the side of a person's head, why not access their brain with a sharp tool through the eye socket?
Freeman's method became known as the transorbital lobotomy.
The transorbital procedure was exceptionally brutal, but it could be performed in a doctor's office using a simple icepick-like tool known as an orbitoclast. Doctors would sedate their patient, line up the orbitoclast with their eye, and then use a mallet to drive the tool up through the bone and into the brain. Once inside, doctors would then twist and rotate the tool in specific motions aiming to sever the correct nerve connections. It was exactly as painful and horrible as it sounds.
Despite that, the transorbital lobotomy became the most widely performed procedure on the planet for a time.
By 1949, more than 5,000 patients every year were receiving transorbital lobotomies in the U.S. In Europe close to 50,000 people were lobotomized in this manner before the practice came under scrutiny in the 1960s and '70s. Surprisingly enough, the Soviet Union was the first nation to ban the procedure in 1950, calling it inhumane.
Dr. Freeman even took his show on the road -- literally. He began visiting other institutions in his personal van, which he called the "lobotomobile."
He would perform lobotomies for other hospitals without spending time with the patient, without gloves, and without even charging too much; he charged just $25 for each icepick lobotomy he performed.
It took the United States decades to officially ban lobotomies. Patients' brains were being destroyed under terrible conditions until the 1970s. A congressional investigation found a widespread misuse of the surgery. The investigation even placed the worst practitioners under arrest. That doesn't even come close to undoing the damage done to those who had their personalities erased against their will.