Jenell Johnson’s American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History by Emma Bedor

American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History

by Jenell Johnson

University of Michigan Press, 2014, 240 pages.


Jenell Johnson’s 2014 book American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History provides an accessible and thoroughly enjoyable look at how an infamous medical procedure – the lobotomy – developed, was administered, initially applauded, ultimately loathed, and has had an enduring and profound impact upon medicalization of the mind and public perceptions of medical authority. Johnson expertly intertwines history and detailed biographical information from and about medical professionals and their patients, and contextualizes it all with media and cultural artifacts to synthesize a project that is both entertaining and understandable by readers with little to no prior knowledge of psychiatry, psychosurgery, or public perceptions of the two.

American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History is aware that the cultural discourse of the lobotomy is largely grounded within “conspiracy theories, political propaganda, radio and television documentaries, autobiographies, biographies, paintings, t-shirts, jokes, and congressional hearings” (1). All of these threaten, in fact, to obscure its initial medical justifications and applications. Yet Johnson’s book and larger project of highlighting significant socio-cultural discourses surrounding medicine provide a case study and argument for why the clouds of mystery that often obscure medical practices ought to be methodically deconstructed. Therefore, while largely historical, American Lobotomy is also forward-looking in that it presents a marvelous argument for why further scholarship exploring the cultural significance of medicine is necessary, perhaps more in the contemporary information age than ever before.

American Lobotomy’s introduction situates the lobotomy as not only a medical procedure, but a mythical one as well, in that its influence upon the American medical-cultural landscape endures despite its disappearance from legitimated medical practice.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.