Neurophilosophy

Film footage of the ice pick lobotomy

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A forthcoming PBS documentary called The Lobotomist examines the career of psychiatrist Walter J. Freeman, who performed nearly 3,000 “ice pick” lobotomies during the late 1930s and 1940s.

The hour-long program, which is partly based on Jack El-Hai’s book of the same name, contains old footage of Freeman performing the procedure, and features an interview with Howard Dully, who was lobotomized at the age of 12 (and whose memoir was published last year).

Freeman fiercely advocated – and popularized – the lobotomy. He travelled across the U.S. in his “lobotomobile”, teaching others how to perform it. Initially used to treat small numbers of patients with otherwise intractable psychoses, the procedure came to be used more widely, on petty criminals, for example, and troublesome children.

By 1960, nearly 20,000 lobotomies had been performed in the U.S. alone. Freeman himself lobotomized John F. Kennedy’s 23-year-old sister Rosemary, who consequently remained institutionalized for the rest of her life, and the youngest person he operated on was just 4 years old.

There’s a 30-second trailer for The Lobotomist on the PBS website. The film clip below is slightly longer, and includes the same footage of Freeman performing the ice pick lobotomy, and of a number of lobotomized patients.