Walter Jackson Freeman II was an evangelical neurosurgeon, vocal about his beliefs and touting a procedure of his own creation from the 1940s through the 1960s. It was called a lobotomy, an operation that involved inserting a sharp metal instrument through the eye socket of the patient and cutting brain tissue.
But what does a lobotomy do? The cutting of connective tissue inside the brain was thought to ease the symptoms of mental illness, and was frequently used on patients who were severely depressed or experienced violent outbursts. Lobotomies were intended to lower levels of emotion, releasing patients from their internal struggles.
When it comes to the life of the man who created the "ice pick method," Freeman became one of the most famous and infamous medical figures of the 20th century. He was passionate about his work to a fault, and he wouldn't stop until thousands of mental health patients were "cured" — one way or another.
In 1949, Dr. Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize for creating a procedure called a "leucotomy." The Portuguese neurosurgeon had come up with a way to supposedly change violent, manic, and psychotic behaviors in his patients: he drilled several holes in their heads and removed tiny slices of brain matter from their frontal lobes. According to Motherboard, Moniz believed the undesirable behavior was caused by "excessively tight associations between neural circuits," and that carefully placed cuts could relieve the pressure.
Freeman was inspired by Moniz's work, calling his methods "brilliantly conceived." Although his own lobotomies were very similar in concept, there was an important distinction between the two doctors. While Freeman used the procedure almost indiscriminately, Moniz insisted it should only be used when all other methods of treatment had failed.
In creating his new surgical procedure, Freeman drew inspiration from his own kitchen. His tool of choice became a common household ice pick, which was forced through the thin bone in the eye socket to access the brain. Statistics show around one third of lobotomies performed in the United States were done using this method, rather than via holes drilled in the top of the patient's skull.
Freeman's first transorbital lobotomy via the ice pick method took place in Washington, DC, in 1946. The patient was a housewife named Ellen Ionesco. Her daughter described the immediate change she saw in her mother:
She was absolutely violently suicidal beforehand... After the transorbital lobotomy there was nothing. It stopped immediately. It was just peace. I don't know how to explain it to you, it was like turning a coin over. That quick. So whatever he did, he did something right.
In the early 1900s, there were still very few methods of treatment for people with severe mental health problems, other than locking them away from the world. Many mental asylums and hospitals were overflowing, and health care workers were overwhelmed by patients they couldn't control.
In a 2005 interview with NPR, Dr. Elliot Valenstein (author of Great and Desperate Cures, a history of lobotomies) shed light on why people were so eager to try out Freeman's "miracle cure" in spite of the risks:
There was no other way of treating people who were seriously mentally ill... The drugs weren't introduced until the mid-1950s in the United States, and psychiatric institutions were overcrowded ... [Patients and their families] were willing to try almost anything.
Freeman loved a good shock-and-awe routine. One of his best-known moves was taking an ice pick in each hand and performing a two-handed lobotomy through both eyes at the same time, to the amazement of whatever audience of medical professionals might be present.
Many fellow physicians began to note his lack of professionalism, after witnessing these procedures. He was quoted as saying he didn't believe in "all that germ crap"; he regularly failed to wash his hands or put on gloves, and chewed gum during operations. Because the lobotomy procedure was so personal to him, he looked for new patients everywhere — even in people who most likely didn't need treatment. Freeman clung to the idea that he was helping, even as medical science moved forward without him.