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Things You Never Knew About Walter Jackson Freeman II, The 'Father of the Lobotomy'

Updated June 14, 2019 77.2k views14 items

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.

  • Working In A Psychiatric Facility Convinced Freeman To Continue Studying Neurology

    Freeman's first full-time job when he completed his medical training was as director of laboratories at Saint Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC. The institution was founded in 1855 to house those who were considered to be clinically insane.

    The time Freeman spent at Saint Elizabeth's inspired him to push further in building his understanding of the brain and mental illnesses. He earned his Ph.D in neuropathology a few years after he began working at the asylum. Freeman was said to be affected by the psychological suffering of the patients; the budget per patient was a mere $2 per day, and the 5,000 patients were kept in "near-Victorian conditions."

  • The Side Effects Of Lobotomies Were Severe

    Freeman wanted lobotomies to be less invasive and have shorter recovery times than Dr. Egas Moniz's leucotomies. However, the "new and improved" procedure wasn't without its risks. Many patients who received lobotomies were left in vegetative states, lost the use of their limbs, or became childlike and needed constant care.

    Many people who believed they were receiving a miracle cure didn't survive the operation. The results of a lobotomy were frequently life-changing, but not always in the positive way that was expected.

  • Photo: FiachraByrne / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Lobotomies Were Used To Treat Everything From Schizophrenia To Depression

    There weren't many ailments Freeman thought a lobotomy couldn't fix. Depression, excessive emotion, headaches, schizophrenia (occasionally misdiagnosed), nearly any mental illness or behavioral issue warranted a lobotomy, according to Freeman. He remained liberal in his use and promotion of the treatment, which made him a controversial figure among his peers.

    Lobotomies fell out of favor in the 1950s as antipsychotic drugs like Thorazine were developed, giving doctors more options for the treatment of mental illnesses. As effective and non-invasive as the new treatments were, Freeman persisted with his practice of lobotomizing patients. By the 1960s, most major hospitals were no longer interested in working with him.

  • Freeman Came From A Family Of Medical Professionals

    As a young man, Freeman's family members boasted medical successes. His grandfather on his mother's side, William Keen, was the first American surgeon to successfully remove a brain tumor from a patient. His father was an otolaryngologist, also known as an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor.

    Freeman, born in 1895 and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, showed little interest in the field of medicine as a boy, though that changed. He graduated from Yale University, earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1920, and went to Europe to study neurology in 1923.