HEALTH:Trepanation in history

John Mitchell
Saturday 16 September 1995 23:02

NOT MANY people want to drill holes in their head. Yet some have done so and survived, and feel very pleased with the result. Jenny Gathorne- Hardy is the latest addition to the slender ranks of the amateur trepanationists. She allowed her skull to be pierced by a drill, aided by a friend and her companion Joe Mellen, a pioneer of the movement. Now she feels, as they all say they do, less nervous, more fully conscious and happier than she was before.

Doctors and surgeons are horrified at the idea of people trepanning themselves - and with good reason. The operation is now medically obsolete. Even when it was professionally performed, as a last-resort treatment for damaged skulls and in certain cases of epilepsy, the patient's chance of recovery was no better than about 50-50. Jenny, Joe and the others are very lucky, say the experts, to have got away with unskilled operations that could so easily have killed them.

The first modern do-it-yourself trepanationist was in fact a doctor, a Dutchman named Bart Huges. He had formed a theory about brain, blood and consciousness which stated that when humans decided to walk upright they deprived their brains of the blood volume needed for their proper functioning. The remedy was to open a hole in the skull, thus allowing the heart to pump more blood through the head. In that way, said Huges, we can return ourselves to the state of high perception we enjoyed in infancy, before the bony carapace that encases our brains was fully formed and sealed shut.

In 1966 Bart Huges brought his holed skull to London where he found ready converts to the doctrine of "brain blood volume". The folk singer Julie Felix wrote a song of that name, followed by "The Great Brain Robbery" and other Hugesian ballads; the poet and playwright Heathcote Williams made a trepanation scene the climax of his award winning play, AC-DC, and Colin Wilson wrote The Mind Parasites on a hole-in-the-skull theme. Yet of all those who fell under Huges's spell only one dared to put the master's message into practice.

Joseph Mellen, an old Etonian and former champion athlete, took Huges at his word, acquired an ancient, hand-cranked trepanning instrument and succeeded - after several bloodily botched attempts - in removing a disc of bone from the front of his skull, to the alleged relief of his brain.

His partner, Amanda Feilding, also wanted a hole in her head and she gave herself one with a Black & Decker drill. Joe recorded the operation on his video cameras, from the shaving of her head to the moment when she breaks through the bone and the result is so gory that people often faint when they see it. After that Joe and Amanda lived happily together for about 25 years, raised a pair of sons and ran a successful gallery and publishing company. They recently changed partners and that is how Jenny Gathorne-Hardy came into the picture.

There is nothing reasonable to be said in favour of self-trepanation. The operation has a long and interesting history, but it has always been carried out by specialists, priestly or medical. The earliest were tribal shamans or witch doctors, who operated for magical purposes. Using sharp flints or animal teeth, they hacked out large pieces of bone from the skulls of certain young people, evidently as part of an initiation process.

All over the world from North and South America and across the Pacific to Asia and western Europe, skulls found in prehistoric burial sites regularly include several with one or more artificial cavities, the results of primitive surgery. Subsequent regrowth of the bone shows that the holes were made during the person's lifetime and often in youth. The most famous of ancient trepanned skulls was the giant specimen which monks of Glastonbury, who excavated it from the grounds of their abbey in 1190, identified as King Arthur's. It had several holes in it, one large and still open and others healed by knitting of the bone.

An anthropological view is that ancient recipients of trepanations were generally people of high rank in their tribes. The operation was meant in some way to befit them for their responsibilities. Perhaps it made them better dreamers, more open to inspiration, less prone to obsession by demons. In all native traditions which survived into modern times the mystical purpose of trepanation was emphasised. The nomadic Kabyle people of Algeria, whose priests cut through living skulls with stone hammers and chisels, and the South Pacific islanders, who used sharks' teeth before they discovered jagged glass, had the same idea of improving the spiritual qualities of the people they operated on. The perforated skulls were sometimes left open beneath the skin, sometimes closed with a plate or shell, but behind all the ritual details the basic function of trepanation has always been to relieve the brain and uplift the mind. That is very much how Bart Huges saw it.

In both scientific and folk medicine the general use of trepanation has been for curing various disorders of the brain, from mental fevers to persistent headaches. Doctors have rationalised these operations, but trepanation has never entirely lost touch with its mystical origins. Boring through a skull is always associated with some form of release; it frees the brain from something that previously distressed it. A traditional view is that it releases demons, and country healers used to speak of worms or objects containing evil spirits that had to be extracted from within a patient's skull. Sick or unruly cattle were often treated in the same way. Herdsmen used spikes or augers to break through the foreheads of afflicted beasts with the idea of letting out the worm or demon that was troubling them.

Trepanation is now regarded as a dangerous fad - except of course by the bold or foolhardy self-trepanationists. Like the witch doctors of old, they believe in it as a means to mental liberation. In succession to Huges, Amanda Feilding has become their chief spokesperson. She no longer approves of doing the operation yourself, but believes that the medical profession should take it up again. In two general elect-ions she has stood for Parliament in Chelsea, persuading 188 voters in all that trepanation should be freely available on the National Health to anyone who asks for it.

John Michell

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