PBS Documentary on Chief American Lobotomist

The PBS series “American Experience” will broadcast an episode about America’s leading lobotomist, Walter J. Freeman, on Monday, January 21 at 9:00 pm. After that, the show will be made available on-line.

Freeman developed the transorbital lobotomy (often called the “ice-pick” lobotomy) in the 1930s at George Washington University as a “cure” for many types mental illness. He then relentlessly promoted his procedure, which was inflicted on nearly 3,000 people up into the 1960s.

According to a Washington Post article on the PBS documentary:

Freeman’s operation reflected the neurologist’s peculiar combination of zealotry, talent, hubris and, as one of his trainees noted, craziness. Sometimes Freeman, who relished putting on a show, used a carpenter’s mallet instead of a surgical hammer during demonstrations of his operation. At other times, he would operate left-handed rather than right-handed.

Public and medical acceptance of Freeman’s radical operation was driven by the desperation to do anything effective about serious mental illness in the first half of the 20th century.

State hospitals were teeming, squalid warehouses that had become permanent homes to thousands who had little hope of ever leaving. One of the most notorious was Washington’s St. Elizabeths Hospital, where Freeman began his career in the 1920s and was struck by the sight of 5,000 patients “whose lives were going nowhere, would go nowhere,” in the words of [Freeman’s biographer, Jack] El-Hai….

A few patients and their families claimed lobotomy was beneficial, especially in reducing agitation, which was Freeman’s measure of success. But others died on the table or were left irreparably damaged: childlike, docile, vacant and incontinent. Among them was Rosemary Kennedy, the 23-year-old mildly retarded sister of John F. Kennedy, who spent 56 years of her life in an institution after Freeman operated on her in 1941.

In addition to tracing the history of the procedure itself, the documentary follows the stories of a number of Freeman’s patients and their families.

Thanks to my York colleague Susan Murtha for alerting me to this program and article.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.