Trepanation Trepidation at the Old Doctor’s Office

By Deryn Cro, 2010 LHS Summer Intern

While this blog entry was originally supposed to examine the history of the cranial drill, and it will, I have come across something far more remarkable and-well let’s face it-interesting. I am of course talking about voluntary trepanation! Trepanation is the procedure in which a hole is drilled into a person’s skull for medical reasons. Voluntary trepanation is when someone drills a hole themselves for the purpose of gaining a higher state of being. Now before we delve any deeper let me just say that a.) I do not condone the following b.) please do not try this at home!

Trepanation is nothing new; it was commonly performed during the Middle Ages to help demons escape from one’s head. It was also done to get rid of headaches (ironic, I know), reduce swelling in the brain and seizures. Civilizations (through out) history found that trepanation could be used in a myriad of ways; it is thought to be one of the oldest surgical procedures in the world. There seems to be a high rate of survival and a low risk of infection; of eight skulls found in Germany from the 6th century seven showed signs of healing.

The Lewes Historical Society's cranial drill.

The cranial drill at The Lewes Historical Society is from the 19th century and was made at the dawn of modern surgery. The company Kny-Scheerer produced the cranial drill housed at the historical society as well as many other surgical instruments. Kny-Scheerer was a German company based in New York City, where they also produced the majority of their products The drill dates between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, this is determined by the crowned snake coil around the scepter that is branded onto the drill. This symbol was used by Kny-Scheerer until World War I. The company also produced many of the medical supplies used by the United States during World War I. The 19th and 20th century were marked by many medical advancements, such as the cranial drill, that proved beneficial to surgeons of the time. Just as anesthesia allowed for more precise amputations, the development of anesthesia and antiseptic also let surgeons perform longer more intricate brain surgeries. During this time Hughling Jackson discovered specific functions in the cerebral cortex from examining seizure patients. In 1884 Dr. Rickman Godlee performed the first modern brain surgery when he removed a brain tumor. The era of believing that demons were the cause of mental disorders had past and medicine was making major steps forward.

In 1964 Dutch librarian Burt Hughes published “The Mechanism of Brainbloodvolume” He argued that drilling into the skull would bring a higher state of consciousness similar to that of a child. The idea is that since a child’s brain is not fully developed there is room for the brain to breathe, but as one grows older the brain enlarges and the skull hardens and due to gravity blood drops from the brain cavity. So clearly the only way to reverse this is to drill a hole into the skull and give the brain enough room to absorb more oxygen. And you thought I was exaggerating when I said this was crazy. Considering Hughes came up with this theory during the 1960s there were of course people who were all too happy to go along with him. This even included John Lennon, he prescribed to Hughes’s theory but Hughes believed that trepanning Lennon would be redundant. He thought that 10 percent of the population’s intracranial seams do not harden and these people have natural openings which would make trepanation unnecessary. However for the rest of the population trepanation could prove to be greatly beneficial.

Trepanation even became a political issue when Amanda Feilding ran for the British Parliament in 1978. She was a fan of Hughes and even had her husband film her as she performed a trepanation on herself. The home movie has since been lost but parts can be seen in the documentary Hole in the Head; yeah, they actually made a documentary on voluntary trepanation and, yes, it is disgusting.

For those of you who wish to learn more about voluntary trepanation the two videos below will demonstrate far more clearly than I can the psychotic lengths people will go to for the all ultimate health remedy. Also as you watch be thankful that you do not feel the need to look like something out of a Star Trek episode.


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