The Friday Afternoon Movie: The Lobotomist

Please pardon the brevity of today’s FAM write-up as its inept and cretinous editor has once again succumbed to is inability to efficiently manage his time, meaning that he now has an mountain of goose colons on his desk that require sorting and filing. Also, he needs to get a picture of Spiderman on his boss’s desk by the end of the day. This is not going to turn out well.

But you don’t come to the FAM for the verbiage, you come for the movie. Today’s film once again comes from PBS, this time from their American Experience series of documentaries. This particular episode is entitled The Lobotomist and details the rise and fall of Dr. Walter J. Freeman, who traveled the country in the 40s and 50s in his self-described “lobotomobile” performing what came to be known as an “ice-pick” (transorbital) lobotomy, a procedure he helped to both perfect (even creating a tool which he called the orbitoclast) and popularize, performing between 2500 and 3500 of them during his career. Most famously he performed the operation on John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary when she was 23, permanently incapacitating her in the process.

Freeman was more than the country’s most famous lobotomist, he was also the procedure’s greatest evangelist. Always the showman, he would perform two lobotomies at once or assembly line style, once lobotomizing 25 women in a single day. In his crusade he was beyond reckless and unscrupulous. In December of 1960 he lobotomized 12 year-old Howard Dully at the request of Dully’s stepmother because he was “defiant and savage-looking”. Freeman’s license was finally revoked when a patient he was lobotomizing died from a brain hemorrhage. The lobotomy’s death knell came in the form of anti-psychotic drugs like Thorazine in the mid-50s, which allowed doctors to obtain the same results chemically, without having to slice up their patients’s frontal lobes.

The Lobotomist gives a look, then, into the life and career of a man singularly obsessed with his work, work he felt was helpful despite contradictory evidence, and the fame he so desperately sought at the cost of all else and, in doing so, presents another unfortunate chapter in the treatment of the mentally ill.

2 Responses to “The Friday Afternoon Movie: The Lobotomist”

  1. Life_inc Says:

    If you folks found this fascinating, check out this new series on the BBC. Its really great exploration of the science of the mind.

    2 episodes so far….13 days left to watch episode 1.

  2. Nadya Says:

    That was a great documentary. I’ve always wanted to know more about this! I’d heard of Howard Dully before, but never seen footage. And I can’t believe that Freeman once lobotomized a 4-year-old child. And I didn’t know that the original scientist who first did these experiments (Moniz) actually received the Nobel prize.

    Thanks for posting this!