Brain Mutilation for Fun and Profit: The Story of Walter Freeman

A while ago I was looking for some good pages to reference about some of psychiatry’s more barbaric procedures. Along the way, I stumbled across the Washington Post’s peculiar profile of Dr. Walter Freeman, the pioneer of the ice-pick lobotomy and one of the most controversial figures in the past few decades of clinical psychiatry.

For those who aren’t familiar, Freeman performed thousands of lobotomies on people suffering from depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, mental retardation, and other disorders. Sublimely apathetic to the fact that there was no actual evidence that his treatment worked, he carried on mutilating people’s brains—knocking them out by electroshock or anesthesia, and then hammering an icepick through the tear duct and swinging it around in the frontal lobe to destroy the connection with the thalamus.

Freeman made his fame, and a great deal of money, by refining Egas Moniz’s techniques for human lobotomy and touring the country evangelizing its use to psychiatric hospitals. Because lobotomy succeeded in making some trouble-making patients more docile, it was widely adopted by psychiatric hospitals after presentations by Freeman. It didn’t seem to bother them that most patients suffered severe losses of functioning after the procedure, that adult patients ended up pissing on themselves and having to be re-taught how to eat. It didn’t even matter to them that Freeman had forcibly anesthetized patients in order to carry out his assault on their brain whether they wanted it or not. What mattered to them was that patients were docile and manageable, not whether their humanity was being respected or their underlying mental conditions improved. In the period of Freeman’s greatest activity, between 1936 and the late 1950s, somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 Americans were subjected to lobotomies.

Along the way, Freeman managed to kill several of his patients in surgery and to try bizarre experiments to refine his technique, such as a case where he followed the lobotomy of 14 patients with an injection of hot water into the brain, in which he was prepared to accept two fatalities. Prior to his career as a lobotomist, he had also personally introduced electroconvulsive therapy and insulin shock therapy to the hospital in which he worked.

A few of the incidents are recounted by the Post:

When the day arrived, Mrs. Hammatt tried to change her mind when she found out that her head had to be shaved. Freeman and Watts promised to spare as much of her hair as they could, before forcibly anesthetizing her. Later, Freeman recorded that her last words before surgery were, Who is that man? What does he want here? What’s he going to do to me? Tell him to go away. Oh, I don’t want to see him, followed by a scream.

The Post doesn’t bother to point it out, but what Freeman and Watts had just done was to cut into a person’s brain against her will, committing a bizarre and wantonly cruel surgical assault. Later in his brain-slicing career, he committed what could only be called murder from depraved indifference to human life:

At Cherokee State Hospital in Iowa, he accidentally killed a patient when he stepped back to take a photo during the surgery and allowed the leucotome to sink deep into the patient’s midbrain.

We’ll leave alone the question of why he was never put in prison for his crimes; so many atrocities against mental patients have gone unpunished. But why is it that the Washington Post has decided to portray Dr. Freeman, whose wanton disregard for human life and barbarous procedures should put his medical influence alongside that of Dr. Josef Mengele, as some kind of unheralded psychiatric innovator? They conclude their profile by writing:

Lobotomy also raised high hopes in its day. During the late 1950s, when the new tranquilizing drugs had grown popular in state hospitals, Freeman wrote letters to his psychosurgical colleagues around the world, praying for a time when brain operations would again gain wide favor in the battle against mental illness. It didn’t happen in his lifetime.

Now that it might happen in ours, Freeman’s presence is unwelcome. He flits around, a pesky spirit looking for the recognition he believes he is due, an unwanted ghost causing sighs and regret.

Poor Walter Freeman! As to the reason for these sighs and regret, the Post writes that The answer lies in the complex tangle of Freeman’s personality and motivations, and in the public’s fear of past abuses.

Perhaps the Post should reconsider the possibility that Freeman is discredited not only because of a grating personality and lingering public hysteria. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that he was an irresponsible, sadistic asshole who killed several people and ruined the lives of tens of thousands more with a procedure that was completely useless, cruel, and barbaric.

Of course, methods which are not much more refined are carried on today—the ice-pick lobotomy was replaced with the chemical lobotomy of tranquilizers and other disabling psychiatric medications. The article would have been no more responsible if it had stridently condemned Freeman but uncritically endorsed these modern methods. But I really have to wonder what could have blinded the Post to something so thoroughly obvious as the evil that Freeman perpetrated on innocent people. It’s a fucking ice-pick driven through the skull. Even some of his psychiatric contemporaries, who regularly used electroconvulsive therapy and insulin shock, fainted at the sight of Freeman’s procedure. Can’t we expect at least that much sympathy out of those of us who have lived to have the benefit of hindsight on the horrors that Freeman wrought?

15 replies to Brain Mutilation for Fun and Profit: The Story of Walter Freeman Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. josh morgan

    The abuses of labotimies are horrific, however I felt you were being unfair on several counts. First, the Walter Freeman’s genuine goal was to improve peoples lives and not to be “a sadistic asshole”. Second, you exploit the shock value of an icepick piercing the skull. It would be just as easy to generate disgust over sawing the top of someone’s head of and cutting their brain in half, a modern effective treatment for some forms of epilepsy.

  2. Rad Geek

    I’m afraid I don’t understand your reply, Josh.

    I mean, first, who cares what Freeman thought he was trying to do? I’m sure he did think his goal was to do good. Lots of people do; indeed, as an Aristotelian, I’d argue that everyone does. But whatever he thought his goal was, he was directly, personally responsible for the crippling of thousands of patients by one of the most barbaric practices of modern psychiatry (and please note that that is a crowded field). Dr. Mengele, apparently, thought that he was advancing medical science. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t, in fact, a sadistic asshole. And while Walter Freeman never (say) injected seawater into a living person’s heart just to see what would happen, he did inject hot water into living people’s brains, just to see what would happen, and judging from his sheer carelessness with the wishes and the lives of his patients (or rather, victims), I honestly can’t say I think that he is much better of a person.

    I’m also not sure why you think that radical surgery for epilepsy is a good analogue for the icepick lobotomy. It’s true that any form of invasive surgery is going to be, at some level, gross; and when it comes to neurological surgery it’s probably going to seem pretty ugly. If a surgery is horrifying to consider but has an established use in extreme cases then by all means that’s a reason to overcome your queasiness and use it.

    But the simple fact is that the icepick lobotomy had no worthwhile uses and no purpose other than mentally crippling patients that the wardens of asylums found particularly troublesome to deal with. Freeman had no evidence that it was good for anything and he didn’t care; he just went on irreversibly destroying people’s brains and turning them into permanent invalids for years. Since there is no use for lobotomy to overcome the horrifying procedure that it induces, there is no reason to think that the horrifying procedure isn’t part of what’s bad about it, and about the man who went around peddling it to psychiatrists around the world.

· August 2005 ·

  1. Christine

    You might be interested in my website Psychosurgery.org. I’ve talked to many of Freeman’s victims and their family members. That’s because my own grandmother was lobotomized for schizophrenia in 1953. One of our member’s mother was lobotomized by Freeman himself while she was pregnant to cure her of headaches. Another was lobotomized at age 12 by Freeman for being a “delinquent”. All of their oral histories are available on my site.

    Trust me - there were no redeeming factors to this man’s butchery. Thanks for covering it Rad Geek.

· October 2005 ·

  1. barb

    My cousin and I have a suspicion that our grandmother may have had a lobotomy and really want to find out. Is there any way? She was a patient at Rusk State Mental Hospital in the late 40’s when Freeman was there. She had a flat infantile personality after she was taken from there by my father. We don’t know if my father knew about it, but we have more “evidence” to support our thinking. I also had an aunt on my mother’s side of the family who was there during the late 40’s early 50’s. She also was very strange after her stay there in that she was “flat” as well. They were not related. Write back, please. B

· December 2005 ·

  1. scary stuff

    I would be interested in hearing how one finds out whether a relative had an icepick procedure (or any of the other varieties), too. I have a strong suspicion my aunt had this horrible procedure done to her.

  2. Howard Dully

    Hey Christine I am that 12 year old that Freeman did for being “beyond parental control” in fact it was actually being “beyond stepmoms control” and doctor after doctor that we saw all said that SHE was the problem, until she met Freeman who was looking for someone to do.

    Wonder what kind of suit I would of had for colussion between the good doctor and my stepmother ? maybe I wouldn’t be living in a trailer right now huh? Howard Dully howarddully@comcast.net

— 2006 —

  1. Terry Parker Jr.

    We have hidden crime in our society, which is unauthorized psychosurgical experimentation with epileptic children, under the guise of neurosurgical procedure. (ie-“scar tissue removal”) Dr. Harold J. Hoffman of the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, has lobotomized thousands of children 1964-1998, without informed consent nor parental knowledge. Seems off the wall, that this doctor prostituted epileptic children for psychosurgical research, strictly to qualify for the six billion dollar psychosurgical funding by the US Dept of Justice in 1968. I was psychosurgically raped Dec. 9,1969 and Jan. 27,1972, at 14 & 16 years of age. Since this unauthorized left and right temporal lobectomy, Life has been hell with increase and variation in seizure disorder, status epilepticus, and continual episodes of cerebral hemmorrahaging in the operative field. When healthy good brain tissue is resected, this causes further scar tissue, which results in greater epileptic seizure disorder, and status epilepticus, which claims 2400-4600 lives each and every year in Canada. I find no forgiveness, when a hospital has chosen to prostitute children with epilepsy for psychosurgical experimentation, without informed consent nor parental knowledge. Would like to hear from other patients of Dr. Harold J. Hoffman 1964-1998. who have under gone surgery for “scar tissue removal” then afterwards, make discovery of a unauthorized psychosurgical left and /or right temporal lobectomy. To view evidence of Dr. Harold Hoffman’s top secret psychosurgical experimentation, please check out http://www.geocities.com/terryparkerjr/ Patients such as Diane Flemming,14, 1969, unauthorized right temporal lobectomy. Daphane Lowinski, 10, 1991, unauthorized right temporal lobectomy. If anyone is aware of epileptics operated by Dr. Harold Hoffman, please bring this information to their attention. I am seeking a commission of inquiry into this epilepsy / psychosurgical cover-up at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children. Truly, Terry Parker / Robertson http://www.geocities.com/terryparkerjr/

  2. flawedplan

    Hi RG, I’m posting this in case by a stroke of luck you can help me. I’ve read about psychiatric rights in your archives, which were great by the way. I don’t know why you Libs are the only voice these people have in opinion politics, but that’s a bitch for another day.

    I run a board on psych reform and am talking to a producer from the PBS show “American Experience” who are soliciting stories from family members of people who have been lobotomized. I’ve got a running narrative on my board, including my efforts to get the medical records from 2 state hospitals in Minnesota, especially Hastings Asylum, where my Nana spent over a decade, it’s almost impossible of course, sans court order, but I’m covering all the bases from here in Texas; I just have to ask like this and look for someone who can point the way to success…

    I’m tossing the line to anyone I’ve seen publish meaningful content on psych rights (and you do!); today I’m asking if you know of any instances where blood relatives were able to obtain release of medical records from institutions that performed lobotomy in the mid-1900s. A chance in a mil I know, but that’s how you win the lottery.

    Cheers!!

  3. KATHY KILLEAN

    The author of this article on Dr. Freeman does not have to use profanity in getting his point across. This man is no worse than what is going on today. People simply trying to alleviate the suffering of the mentally ill is all he was doing. Do not vilify him. And the article said psychiatric drugs were no better. That is wrong. This is all we have. What do you expect? Miracle cures? They are putting more money in AIDS, breast cancer and Alzheimers than mental health issues. Why don’t you do something constructive like start a fundraiser for the mentally ill, than walk all over some past attempt to alleviate pain.

  4. varrus

    I wonder if this same procedure was ever performed at wayne county school for “feeble minded children”

  5. a boy on a mission

    look,

    many people freeman lobotomized we willing and ready to take on the possible outcome of the procedure. yeah ok some of these people tried to back out and were forced into it and i will admit that was wrong, but think about it, these people had no other hope! we didnt have a cure for depression back then so what were the depressed people to do, live their life in misery. i could go on with that point but i wont. these people faced uncureable diseases, if you had cancer and were certained to dire within a month you bet your ass you would try everything possible to help cure you disease. yes the procedure is barbaric to us today, but back then it wasnt as big of a deal.

  6. Rad Geek

    A.B.O.A.M.,

    First, prefrontal lobotomies were not primarily developed for treating severe depression at all. They were developed for treating incurable psychosis. Most lobotomists recognized how damaging lobotomies could be, but claimed that even the risk of that damage was better than continuing to live with schizoprehnia. I think that prefrontal lobotomies should never have been used, not even for schizophrenia. But historical accuracy does require you to recognize that Freeman was unique, and became something of an embarassment to institutional psychiatry towards the end of his career, because he peddled lobotomies as a brain-damaging snake oil for every kind of psychological complaint. The idea that lobotomies should be used at all for affective disorders like depression was more or less his invention, and even his fellow psychiatrists, who were by no means models of humane concern for their patients, thought that his evangelical hucksterism was terrible medicine.

    Second, I do not accept the premise that most of Freeman’s patients willingly and knowingly accepted the procedure.

    First, there is the question of will. Besides the documented cases in which Freeman forced radical neurosurgery on unwilling victims, you also have to consider Freeman’s actions within the context of a psychiatric system in which the so-called patients were both socially and legally under the control of doctors, wardens, family, and other privileged guardians. This happened when the so-called patients were children (as in the case of Howard Dully) and also in the cases where family members could easily gain control over them through legal proceedings to have them declared insane. Lobotomies were routinely performed in psychiatric settings where doctors had direct coercive control over patients and where patients’ choices, even when they were solicited at all, were given against a backdrop of really sadistic means of intimidation such as insulin-coma and camphor-shock therapies. Patients who were not in psychiatric hospitals already had to make choices under with the constant, threatening possibility of institutionalization hanging over their head. Morally, there is a distinction to be made between choices that are directly coerced, and choices that are only constrained by background intimidation. But medical professionals have an ethical duty not to exploit either kind of constraint on their patients.

    Second, there is the question of knowledge. Freeman routinely sold his procedure, to prospective patients, their families, and other medical professionals, on the basis of claims that were backed by no scientific evidence, claims that amounted sometimes to unfounded bullshit and sometimes to outright lies. The patients, under duress already, without a medical background, and hoping for the miracle cure that the huckster Dr. Freeman extravagantly peddled, had no reasonable way of determining what it actually was that they were signing on for. Freeman, for one, did not tell them what happened to his patients. Often he did not really even try very hard to find out.

    For a excellent, if harrowing, overview of both these issues — the effective torture of mental patients in the United States during the darkest days of institutional psychiatry, the junk science that invoked to support each new miracle cure, and the wilful disregard for informed consent that psychiatrists routinely practice even today — I’d like to suggest you read Robert Whittaker’s book, Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill (2002). The book discusses Freeman and his lobotomizing at some length, alongside other brain-damaging therapeutics that were popular in the middle of the 20th century.

    I, for one, would be the last person to deny that severe depression is a terrible thing and that people suffering from it are often quite desparate. There was no cure for severe depression in Freeman’s day. In fact, there is no cure for severe depression today. (Part of the problem is that severe depression is not one terrible thing, but many different terrible things with quite different causes, etiologies, and effects, that are bundled together in spite of not having much to do with each other.) I do not know what doctors should have done when faced with suffering patients in the 1940s or 1950s. But I do know that one of the things they should not have done was jab a fucking icepick into the patients brains and swing it around, on the off chance that prefontal lobe damage might help control symptoms rather than destroying the patient’s personality and crippling her mentally. I also know that they should not have lied to patients and families, or gone on destroying other people’s lives without any scientific evidence that what they were doing had any positive effects. There is absolutely no excuse for being so cavalier about other people’s lives and well-being. There is no excuse today, and there was no excuse at the time, either.

— 2007 —

  1. Howard Dully

    Wow what a interesting discussion, better than many I have read on other sites I’ve Googled.

    Keep Listening

  2. Steve Thompson

    I can now add Walter Freeman’s name to the short list of people I despise. From what I have read of (documented) acts perpetrated by this evil and vain man I can only hope that he is now burning in hell.

    Had justice been served Freeman would have been tried and convicted for multiple murders (not to mention the tens of thousands of barbaric procedures he performed on his victims) and he would have served out the remainder of his natural life behind bars.

    In terms of human misery I rate Freeman along with some of history’s worst offenders, the aforementioned Josef Mengele for one.

    The only justice that can be served now is that Freeman be remembered for what he was, cruel and inhuman.

  3. Steve Thompson

    Actually the last sentence from my Sept. 25, 2007 post was woefully inadequate, instead it should read:

    The only justice that can be served now is that Freeman be remembered for what he was: a cruel, inhuman psychopathic murderer who disguised himself in the garb of the medical practitioner.

    The very fact that after killing one of his patients while at Cherokee State Hospital in Iowa (noted in Rad Geek’s article, Freeman was more interested in photo ops that the welfare of his patient) Freeman continued to perform this barbaric procedure is the telltale sign of a psychopath. Any human being with a conscience and empathy would have stopped performing lobotomies there and then.

    I have taken the time to post twice (Rad Geek’s commentary is moving and completely justified in its frank nature) because I am so supremely disgusted by the actions of this man. There can be no excuses for Freeman’s actions, time cannot soften the judgment that must surely be rendered for Mr. Freeman.

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