Lobotomy Photography as Medical Evidence

Science and the Arts, a project of NPR’s Science Friday, has posted a slideshow of Dr. Walter Freeman‘s before and after photographs of lobotomy patients. The slideshow is based on the work of Miriam Posner, Mellon Postdoctoral Research Associate at Emory University, who also narrates the slideshow. Prosner recently completed her Yale University dissertation on Freeman and his lobotomy photographs. She argues that for Freeman the photographs served as medical evidence of the benefits of lobotomy and provided justification for his focus on external behavior rather than their mental states when evaluating surgical outcomes.

As Posner writes on her website,

Walter Freeman (1895 – 1972) was a neurologist who pioneered and popularized lobotomy. In this procedure, the brain’s frontal lobe is separated from the thalamus. The effects of lobotomy vary from patient to patient, but the procedure was designed to make aggressive mental patients less dangerous. Freeman thought that lobotomy had wider applications, and he administered lobotomies to patients suffering from depression and pain. All in all, Freeman performed more than 3,500 lobotomies, often as outpatient procedures…The neurologist was also an avid photographer, obsessively documenting his patients before and after their procedures. Freeman also made a series of films showing lobotomies and their effects. After he stopped performing lobotomies in the early 1960s, Freeman crossed the country in his van (nicknamed the Lobotomobile), tracking down former patients and snapping their photographs.

The full slideshow can be viewed here.

Thanks to Cathy Faye for bringing this to AHP‘s attention.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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