Walter Freeman: The Father of the Lobotomy

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walter freeman
walter freeman

Walter Freeman is known in history as the father of the lobotomy, an infamous procedure that involved hammering an ice pick-like instrument into a patient’s brain through their eye sockets. The horrifying procedure often left patients in a vegetative state and is responsible for an estimated 490 deaths.

Freeman was born on Nov. 14, 1895 and raised by his parents in Philadelphia. As a child he did not show much interest in the field of medicine, despite his father, Walter Jackson Freeman, being an otolaryngologist and his maternal grandfather, William Williams Keen, a prominent surgeon.

After graduating from Yale University, he enrolled as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a medical degree in 1920. 

Freeman worked as a pathology intern at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania before traveling to Europe to study neurology in 1923. He returned to the United States a year later, taking a position as the director of laboratories at a leading psychiatric institution in Washington, D.C. -- Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital -- practicing as the first neurologist in the city.

Working at the institution, Freeman witnessed the pain and distress suffered by mentally ill patients for the first time, which encouraged him to continue his education in the field. Over the next few years he earned his PhD in neuropathology and secured a position at George Washington University as head of the neurology department. 

Influenced by the devastating effects of mental illness, Freeman began using oxygen therapy and experimented with chemical treatments for patients.

In 1935, Freeman learned of a frontal lobe ablation technique that had been used on chimpanzees with the effects of subduing their temperament.

That same year, a new procedure intended to treat mental illness was performed in Portugal under the direction of neurologist and physician Egas Moniz called a “leucotomy,” which took small corings out of the frontal lobes.

Freeman modified the procedure, renaming it a “lobotomy.” He believed that excess emotions led to mental illness and that severing certain nerves in the brain could stabilize a person’s personality.

With the help of neurosurgeon James Watts, Freeman performed the first prefrontal lobotomy operation in the United States on a 63-year-old woman who was suffering from insomnia and agitated depression. The operation involved drilling six holes into the top of the patient’s skull and when it was finished she emerged “transformed” and lived for another five years.

Freeman and Watts performed a number of lobotomies carried out at his private practice in Washington, D.C.

He soon developed a more efficient way to perform the procedure without drilling into a person’s head. It involved rendering a patient unconscious by electroshock before inserting a sharp ice-pick-like instrument above the patient’s eyeball. The instrument would be hammered into the skull and wiggled back and forth in order to sever the connections to the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobes of the brain. Four hours later, the patient awoke without any anxiety or apprehension.

In reality, the procedure resulted in leaving many patients in a vegetative state, or reduced them to child-like behavior. Despite its shortcomings, many hospitals adopted the procedure for no other apparent reason than the fact that lobotomized patients were easier to handle than emotionally charged ones.

Freeman began traveling across the county visiting mental institutions and spreading the use of the lobotomy by training staff to perform the operation. Despite much criticism toward the controversial procedure, it gained popularity through major publications across the country hailing the lobotomy as a “miracle” surgery.

By 1949, 5,000 lobotomies were being performed annually, up from just 150 in 1945.

Freeman himself would ultimately go on to lobotomize more than 2,900 patients, including 19 children younger than age 18. He became overzealous, completing more than 20 lobotomies in a day without the use of a surgeon.

A showman himself, he liked to shock his audiences by inserting two picks into each eye socket at the same time. He even allowed the media to watch a lobotomy be performed that ended in death as the sharp instrument slipped into the patient’s brain. Freeman reacted indifferently to the patient’s death and continued on to the next patient to do another surgery.

A total of 490 individuals are estimated to have died as a result of a lobotomy.

For the survivors, some were left with no noticeable differences, but others were crippled for life or lived in a persistent vegetative state.

One of Freeman’s most notable patients was John F. Kennedy’s sister, who was born with mild learning difficulties. She was given a lobotomy in 1941 with the consent of her father, but it ended in failure. She was left incapacitated by the procedure and spent the rest of her life in and out of various institutions.

Long-term studies on the effects of the lobotomy, however, eventually began to surface and many supporters of the procedure began to abandon it. Freeman performed his last lobotomy in 1967 after severing a patient’s blood vessel during the procedure, resulting in his death three days later.

Reference

  1. McManamy J. Walter Freeman – father of the lobotomy. McMan’s Depression and Bipolar Web website. Reviewed Jan. 15, 2011. http://www.mcmanweb.com/lobotomy.html

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