I’ve just watched a documentary on Walter Freeman, the famous (or infamous) advocate and practitioner of lobotomy in the mid-20th century. The documentary mentioned that António Egas Moniz, the Portuguese originator of the procedure, received a Nobel Prize in 1949 “for his discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy (ie lobotomy) in certain psychoses.”
I found this astonishing. This barbaric operation turned people into vegetables and was completely repudiated by medical science in the 1960s and yet this man gets a Nobel Prize for developing it?
Is there a mechanism by which a Nobel can be withdrawn if it turns out that it was awarded for junk science? As far as I can tell Moniz still has his prize and that just seems wrong on so many levels.
No, a Nobel Prize cannot be revoked.
The procedure was “completely repudiated” by medical science because better alternatives came along, beginning with thorazine in 1952.
In the heyday of lobotomy in the 1940s, these better alternatives mostly didn’t exist. There were no anti-psychotic medications; severely agitated patients ended up in long-term confinement in overcrowded mental asylums, not infrequently chained to a wall or a bed to keep them from hurting themselves or others. Not everybody ended up a vegetable: at least a few of the patients treated by Moniz and his contemporaries were able to return to work.
Walter Freeman, the American popularizer of the procedure, had much looser standards than Moniz, and his assembly-line process produced worse results. He didn’t focus his efforts on the severely mentally ill, either, and would lobotomize people merely because their family thought they were defiant or difficult. One doctor’s abuse, however, does not necessarily negate another doctor’s work.
Monitz has been dead for 60+ years now, so I doubt that he would care if they take his Nobel Prize away.
But seriously, this is not how science works.
The concept of ‘junk science’ is just not scientific. at all.
Science works by scientists coming up with theories to explain physical phenomena, and to predict reactions to stimulus, and to devise experiments to test those predictions.
Thus science is full of ‘half-baked’ ideas. Then the ‘3/4th-baked’ idea that replaced that idea. Then the idea that is currently accepted as being correct – or the most correct so far.
There are probably a lot of Noble prize ideas that have been succeeded by more detailed explanations. Einsteins Special Relativity replaced Newton’s Laws, and then Einstein replaced his own theory with his General Relativity theory. And now String theory & Quantum Mechanics seem to be supplanting some of General Relativity. And so it goes.
Not the only Nobel Prize in medicine for something we wouldn’t do today. Julius Wagner-Jauregg won for using malaria to treat insanity caused by syphilis (the syphilis was more deadly than the malaria).
Paul Mueller won for using DDT to fight malaria. We know how that turned out – so far.
I have this book but haven’t started reading it yet. (Paid 12 1/2 cents for it too, at a thrift store that was selling all books 2 for a quarter! ) I also saw the author interviewed on C-SPAN 2’s “About Books”, and in the Q&A, someone asked her if lobotomies are still performed. She said that they are, and in the U.S., it may only be performed on people for whom literally everything else has completely failed, and goes through multiple layers of medical ethicists beforehand. In addition, no involved entity can be paid in any way for the procedure. A neurosurgeon she interviewed for the book said that he had done it twice.
If Nobel Prizes could be revoked, they probably would have yanked Carleton Gajdusek’s before anybody else’s, because he was a convicted child molester.
There have been plenty of questionable Peace Prize recipients, too.
I voted for Obama both times, and his is one of them, not because he got it, but because of the timing. He’d just been elected the first time.