Walter Freeman is a name infamous among mental health advocacy circles. The psychiatrist was the innovator of the transorbital lobotomy, and became a staunch advocate for its use in “treating” the mentally ill. The transorbital lobotomy is a brutal procedure in which a thin metal pick is punched through a patient’s orbital cavity and into the brain’s frontal lobe. Once inserted, the physician then manipulates the tool to sever a portion of the brain. Patients, obviously, were never the same. Most experienced difficulty thinking, personality problems and dulled emotions. Some became crippled with uncontrollable seizures. A few died from the procedure.
Freeman, undeterred, toured the United States in a van dubbed the “lobotomobile”, stopping to train surgeons at state hospitals. Thus, lobotomies were inflicted upon the nation’s most vulnerable: troubled children and adults, the indigent and disabled.
While these poor souls made up the majority of those “benefiting” from Freeman’s procedure, they weren’t the only ones. Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of President John F. Kennedy was one of them. Rosemary was developmentally disabled, with an IQ estimated to be between 60 and 70 – a slight to moderate intellectual disability. As she grew into a young woman, Rosemary began to have mood swings. In 1941, 23 year-old Rosemary received a transorbital lobotomy courtesy of Dr. Freeman and an assistant, Dr. James W. Watts. Watts recalled the incident later:
We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards. … “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” … When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.
The Kennedy family took great pain to conceal the story of Rosemary’s lobotomy, and their complicity in her debilitation. Rosemary spent the rest of her life living in a cottage on the grounds of a private psychiatric facility, safely out of the public eye. Voters just knew her as the president’s “mentally handicapped” sister. Perhaps scarred by the incident, Rosemary’s sister, Eunice, went on to found the Special Olympics.
Rosemary Kennedy was just one person whose life was destroyed by Freeman’s ice pick psychosurgery. It is estimated that 40 to 50,000 procedures were performed before public and professional opinion turned against the procedure. In 1967, Freeman was banned from surgery after a patient under his care died following his treatment. The lobotomy is no longer performed today, and is outlawed in most nations.
(Want to hear what it was like to be lobotomized? Howard Dully was inflicted with the procedure at age 12. He did an interview with NPR about his experiences. Check it out here.