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James W. Watts

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James Winston Watts (January 19, 1904 – November 15, 1994) was a neurosurgeon, born in Lynchburg, Virginia and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Watts is noteworthy for his professional partnership with the neurologist and psychiatrist Walter Freeman. The two became advocates and prolific practitioners of psychosurgery, specifically the lobotomy. Watts is known for carrying out the lobotomy of Rose Marie Kennedy under the supervision of Freeman.

Career

After completing medical school in 1928, Watts worked as a research fellow at Yale before joining the faculty of the Department of Neurosurgery and Neurological Surgery at The George Washington University Hospital in 1935. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1969.

Watts was recruited into a medical partnership by his colleague Walter Freeman, who needed the collaboration of a trained surgeon in order to practice the leucotomy, a technique pioneered by the Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz. In the procedure developed by Moniz, the "white matter" in the frontal lobes was severed using a leucotome, an instrument Moniz designed specifically for the procedure. Freeman and Watts acquired several of the instruments and performed their first operation in 1936. They eventually modified the procedure to sever more of the white matter, and renamed it lobotomy in order to distinguish it from the earlier procedure developed by Moniz. Their technique soon became the standard form of the operation, and was known as the "Freeman-Watts Procedure".

Watts' colleague, however, was less conservative and sought other ways to access the frontal lobes of the brain without the complications associated with conventional brain surgery. Inspired by the work of the Italian psychiatrist Amarro Fiamberti, Freeman developed, without the knowledge or participation of Watts, a procedure for reaching the frontal lobes by inserting a probe under the eyelid and above the tear duct, then hammering it through the thin bone of the eye socket. The instrument was swished around, severing the white matter, and was then repeated on the other side. The whole operation took only minutes under local anesthesia. This new procedure became known as the transorbital lobotomy, also dubbed the "ice pick lobotomy" because the instrument used, an orbitoclast, was very similar to a common ice pick. The new procedure also signaled the end of the professional relationship between Freeman and Watts. After performing the new procedure by himself on ten patients, Freeman finally revealed to Watts what he had been doing. Watts, unlike Freeman, was a trained neurosurgeon and adamantly believed lobotomy should only be performed by a proper surgeon. He insisted that Freeman cease performing operations alone, but it was to no avail and Watts soon left the practice that he had jointly established with Freeman.

The 1950s saw the introduction of the first truly effective antipsychotic medications, notably Thorazine. This, combined with a growing discomfort among the medical profession and general public regarding lobotomy, led to a sharp decline in the use of the procedure. In the intervening years, the theoretical basis of lobotomy has been largely discredited.

Watts retired in 1969, but continued his association with The George Washington University Hospital until the late 1980s.

Personal life

Watts was born in 1904 in Lynchburg, Virginia. He had two children with wife Julia Harrison Watts. He died in 1994.

References

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