Antonio Egas Moniz Biography (1874-1955)


Egas Moniz was born in Avança, Portugal, on November 29, 1874. He received his early education from his uncle, an abbot, and later entered the University of Coimbra in 1891 where he pursued a degree in mathematics. He eventually changed his mind, however, and entered the medical degree program. He received his M.D. from Coimbra in 1899.

For much of his life, Egas Moniz divided his time between political action and medical research. The first decade of the twentieth century was a period ofrevolutionary upheaval in Portugal and Egas Moniz was active in the Republican movement that led to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1910. He went on toserve as a deputy in the new parliament, ambassador to Spain, foreign minister, and Portuguese delegate to the 1918 Paris Peace Conference. He retired from politics in 1919 after becoming involved in a duel over a political disagreement.

Egas Moniz's scientific research focused on neurology, especially pertainingto the brain. His first major contribution was the development of a techniquefor studying the brain. Previously, the use of X-rays in studying the brainhad met with little success. However, Egas Moniz developed a technique in which he injected solutions into the brain that are opaque to X-rays. With thisapproach, X-rays could be used to identify the precise location and size of brain tumors and brain injuries. This technique of cerebral angiography is still widely used today.

Later in life, Egas Moniz began to explore brain surgery and its possible usein treating mental illness. In 1935, he attended a conference in which he learned about the experimental removal of the prefrontal lobe of the brain of two monkeys. After this surgery, symptoms of anxiety and frustration could no longer be induced in the monkeys, although the animals had alsolost the ability to learn.

Despite the fact that scientists knew nothing about the function of the prefrontal lobes, Egas Moniz saw a possible application of the monkey experiment to human mental disorders. He proposed the use of a surgical procedure for mental patients in which the prefrontal lobes were severed from the rest of thebrain, a process now known as prefrontal lobotomy.

Because of a serious case of gout, Egas Moniz was unable to carry out this surgery himself. A colleague, Pedro de Almedia Lima (1903-1983), performed theactual operations under Egas Moniz's direction. Of the first 20 operations performed, seven patients were said to be cured of their disorder, eight experienced some improvement, and five were unchanged. For his development of thistechnique, Egas Moniz was awarded a share of the 1949 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

Prefrontal lobotomy has occupied a controversial place in medicine. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, lobotomies became popular in the United States forthe treatment of a variety of mental disorders. By one estimate, an average of 5,000 operations were performed annually between 1949 and 1952. Oppositionto the procedure grew in the 1960s, however, as it became clear that lobotomies often turned humans into "vegetables." Lobotomies eventually fell into disfavor as other methods for treating mental disorders became available. Much more sophisticated versions of Egas Moniz's original procedure have been developed and currently are in use for the treatment of highly specialized conditions, such as intractable pain.

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