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The Surgical Elimination of Violence? Conflicting Attitudes towards Technology and Science during the Psychosurgery Controversy of the 1970s

  • Brian P. Casey (a1)

In the 1970s a public controversy erupted over the proposed use of brain operations to curtail violent behavior. Civil libertarians, civil rights and community activists, leaders of the anti-psychiatry movement, and some U.S. Congressmen charged psychosurgeons and the National Institute of Mental Health, with furthering a political project: the suppression of dissent. Several government-sponsored investigations into psychosurgery rebutted this charge and led to an official qualified endorsement of the practice while calling attention to the need for more “scientific” understanding and better ethical safeguards. This paper argues that the psychosurgery debate of the 1970s was more than a power struggle between members of the public and the psychiatric establishment. The debate represented a clash between a postmodern skepticism about science and renewed focus on ultimate ends, on the one hand, and a modern faith in standards and procedures, a preoccupation with means, on the other. These diverging commitments made the dispute ultimately irresolvable.

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BB – Bertram S. Brown Papers, 1884–1988. MSC 493. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD.
NA – National Archives. Office of the Director, NIH, Central Files, 1960–1982. Record Group 443. Files RES 9-19-E and RES 3-4-B.
NC – National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research Papers. Bioethics Research Library, Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
OSP – Office of Science Policy, Planning, and Communications Files, National Institute of Mental Health.
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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
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