Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Trepanation, Part 1

Those of you following me on Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram have probably seen me share about a million links and images relating to the recent research I’ve been doing into trepanation practices. “What the hell is Emi working on?” you might be asking yourselves. Trepanation is the very ancient procedure of drilling a hole in the skull, and it is possibly the oldest known surgical procedure for which we have physical evidence. I’ve fallen into a bit of a rabbit hole doing this research for an upcoming project, and am currently obsessed.

The Surgeon, by Jan Sanders van Hemessen, depicting a trepanation surgery (painted 1555).

The piece I’m working on focuses mostly on contemporary trepanation practices. I won’t get into all the details (you can wait and read the comic for that) (or, you know, Google it if you’re into spoilers) but essentially the modern trepanation movement is the brainchild of a man named Bart Huges. As a medical student in Amsterdam in the early 60s, Huges postulated that if one were to drill a hole in their skull it would increase what he termed “brainbloodvolume,” and result in a permanent high. He decided to test this hypothesis on himself.

Here’s our man Bart, right after his self-surgery.

Huges unveiled this theory (and his head wound) in an art happening in a public square on January 11th, 1965. He then laid out his ideas in an illustrated scroll he called “Homo Sapiens Correctus,” and tried to get it into the hands of professionals. As you might imagine, he wasn’t taken especially seriously by the medical or scientific community.

“Homo Sapiens Correctus”

A man named Joe Mellen became Huges’ first serious disciple, successfully performing his own self-trepanation in 1970. His memoir, Bore Hole, recounts this experience in some detail. If you have a moment, I recommend reading this interview between Huges and Mellen from 1966, as it is highly entertaining. I had the pleasure of speaking to Mellen as a part of my research for this project, and you’ll hear a lot from him in the comic once it’s finished and posted (stay tuned!).

If you’d like your new scientific theory to be taken seriously, maybe don’t publish it in scroll form.

Artist and activist Amanda Fielding was the second to follow Huges’ example. After failing to find a willing surgeon to help her, she too performed the procedure on herself. Fielding created a film, Heartbeat In The Brain, that featured footage of her self-surgery, in part as an effort to promote the practice. The film was screened at Suydam Gallery in New York City in 1978, where allegedly several audience members fainted upon seeing it. Below is a clip from Fielding’s film, taken from the 1998 documentary A Hole In the Head.

Keep your eyes peeled for my comic about trepanation, which should be finished and online in the near-future. In it, you’ll be able to hear first hand from some of the key players in this unusual movement, as well as learn all about how you too can have a hole drilled in your head! Once the comic is up, I’ll share a little bit more of my research with you guys, so look for that as well!