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The Cuckoo Surgeon Who Did Ice-Pick Lobotomies

At his peak, Walter Freeman hacked at dozens of brains each day

By Jocelyn Rice
Feb 19, 2008 12:00 AMOct 15, 2019 1:59 PM


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The patient is unconscious; an ice pick protrudes from each eye socket. When the doctor steps back to take a photograph, one of the ice picks slips. The patient’s life ends in that instant. The doctor, unfazed, moves along to his next demonstration.

The doctor is Walter Freeman, pioneer of the infamous transorbital lobotomy, and the PBS documentary “The Lobotomist” tells the gruesome story of his rise and fall.

Freeman, the laboratory director at a mental hospital, spent many late nights bent over the dissecting table at the morgue. He was convinced that mental illness had its roots in the brain but couldn’t find any consistent differences between the brains of healthy and mentally ill individuals. Then he heard of a radical new treatment for mental illness: drilling into the skull and disconnecting the frontal lobe. The Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize in 1949 for inventing that procedure, but Freeman made it faster, easier, and more portable.

By the mid-1940s, Freeman was touring the country performing dozens of ice-pick lobotomies each day. He used picks from his own kitchen and carpenter’s hammers. Sometimes, for kicks, he’d operate left-handed. Physicians who gathered to watch would throw up and pass out—but patients often got better. Freeman could turn people who were smearing feces on walls and cowering naked under furniture into calm and docile citizens.

Unfortunately, along with their madness, they lost their personalities. Freeman fell from institutional favor in the mid-1950s, when long-term studies began to reveal his technique’s failings and drugs like Thorazine came to market. In response he moved his practice west and began to operate on new kinds of patients: discontented housewives, for example, and unruly children. One was four years old.

“The Lobotomist” raises questions that remain urgently relevant in an age when pharmaceutical companies help define what it means to be mentally ill. “Is the absence of pain what we should look for? The absence of caring? The absence of anxiety?” journalist Robert Whitaker asks in the film. “Is that a good thing—or is that what makes us human?”

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