Uncharted Territory: Psychosurgery in Western Canada, 1935-1970

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This dissertation provides the first scholarly account of the use of psychosurgery in western Canada in the mid-20th-century. In particular, the adoption, organization, and purpose of the treatment within provincial mental hospitals in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba are explored. I argue that while psychosurgery’s adoption in these provinces mirrored its deployment elsewhere in North America, the cumulative impact of decades of overcrowding, inadequate funding, the privations of war, and the devastation of the Great Depression only amplified psychosurgery’s appeal by the early 1940s. Although it was touted as a therapeutic advancement, the treatment—along with three other somatic therapies—enabled psychiatrists in western Canada to bolster their image in the medical community by demonstrating they were capable of actively treating mental illness. From a more critical perspective, I also explore the notion that psychosurgery was employed in service of a larger social agenda ascribed to mental hospitals—namely, the systemic management, control, and correction of a segment of the population that had been deemed a burden to society. Once the treatment was introduced, each province needed to negotiate who would perform the surgeries and how, when, and where they would take place. The expansion of psychosurgery in most of the provinces was ultimately made possible by federal mental health grants that became available in 1948. By 1954, all of the provincial mental hospitals were performing psychosurgery—either on site or in partnership with a nearby general hospital. Based on available data from each province, there were at least 1,240 operations conducted in western Canada between 1943 and 1973. Of the western provinces, however, Manitoba and British Columbia maintained the most robust psychosurgical programs.
Psychosurgery, Leucotomy, Lobotomy, Western Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba
Collins, B. M. (2020). Uncharted Territory: Psychosurgery in Western Canada, 1935-1970 (Doctoral thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from https://prism.ucalgary.ca.