Walter Freeman: The Lobotomist

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:

Via Wikipedia:

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.

14 Comments on "Walter Freeman: The Lobotomist"

  1. JoiquimCouteau | Dec 27, 2012 at 12:32 am |

    Fun fact – lobotomies were ‘effective’ in part because dopaminergic neurons from the ventral tegmental area (the mesolimbic dopamine ‘system’) pass through the prefrontal cortex before innervating the rest of the cerebral cortex. Modern ‘anti-schizophrenia’ drugs are predominantly D2 ‘receptor’ antagonists, and produce many of the same effects (loss of motivation, cessation of dreaming, lack of interest in the outside world). Calling them ‘chemical lobotomies’ is actually pretty accurate.

    • mole_face | Dec 27, 2012 at 4:09 pm |

      Great point. The drug manufacturers specifically promoted the drugs as a “chemical lobotomy” until lobotomies finally fell out of favor with the psychiatric community. It was originally well understood and accepted that these drugs were major tranquilizers that produced their therapeutic effect via heavy brain impairment. Later the term was changed to “antipsychotics” and patients were told that the reason why they were taking drugs to suppress dopamine was to “correct” an “imbalance” in their brain’s dopamine system – a disingenuous marketing ploy designed to make people more likely to comply with medication.

      • mole_face | Dec 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm |

        Make no mistake about it though, the drugs will definitely alleviate psychosis – in the same way that a lobotomy would quell whatever’s bothering a person. Major tranquilizers are useful as a chemical intervention when someone’s too far gone to function in society, but it’s phony and deceptive to tell patients that taking an “antipsychotic” for psychosis is equivalent to taking insulin for diabetes.

        • JoiquimCouteau | Dec 28, 2012 at 12:53 pm |

          Not as different as you think; diabetes is almost never caused by a deficiency of insulin, just as anemia is rarely caused by lack of dietary iron, and depression is not the result of an SSRI deficiency (or a serotonin deficiency at that). Supplemental insulin is merely a means to an end, a way to overcome the cellular malnutrition produced by diet (starches and unsaturated fats) which produce, among other things, ‘insulin resistance’. Similarly, lobotomies and antipsychotics allow for the eradication of undesirable symptoms without implicating the environment that causes them – society at large (in particular the state).

          • Society causes delusions and depression, but I doubt it causes hallucinations.

          • JoiquimCouteau | Dec 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm |

            It doesn’t cause hallucinations; it decides what hallucinations are. Rich men are eccentric, poor men are schizophrenic.

          • I’m not quite that postmodern.

          • JoiquimCouteau | Dec 29, 2012 at 2:05 pm |

            You’ve also probably watched too many films that portray schizophrenia as a ‘thing’ that people ‘have’. Do you know that schizophrenia is diagnosed using a questionnaire and a checklist? Everyone occasionally experiences ‘symptoms’ of schizophrenia; whether or not they are declared schizophrenic depends on whether they ended up at a psychiatrist.
            Similarly, many people have ‘AIDS defining diseases’ (eg. tuberculosis, recurrent bacterial infection, ‘wasting syndrome’, cervical cancer) but only a select population will take an HIV test and receive the diagnosis of AIDS.

          • As a matter of fact, I have two friends with schizophrenia. It exists, and is neither fun nor helpful.

          • And are the anti-psychotics prescribed to them making them better? Maybe they are not truly “schizophrenic” but are suffering from trauma inflicted upon them by war experiences and other environmental abuse whether from family or society.

          • The anti-psychotics do seem to make them better. Not perfectly well, not without troubles, but definitely better.

          • Amen to that!

  2. The advent of television replaced the need for an actual surgical procedure, lol.

  3. Dumy Ssone | Nov 9, 2013 at 3:45 pm |

    For a more complete and accurate representation of Freeman and his efforts, listen to an NPR interview with his biographer at this link, or read the book:

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