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Psychiatry has a long way to go. But despite that, it’s impossible to even fathom how far it’s come in the last 50 years. What do I mean? I’d like to present to you the strange life and times of Walter Freeman.
A Controversial Figure
Walter Freeman was a 20th-century neurologist and quite possibly the most controversial medical figure of his generation. Don’t know who he is? Well, there was a time where he was a gigantic celebrity in America and the world. He was even on the cover of Life Magazine. He took the works of a Portuguese physician, Egas Moniz, and started performing lobotomies on patients with a whole range of issues like depression or psychosis.
He is most famously known for the ice pick lobotomy. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like:
“In 1946, Dr. Freeman took a new path into the cranium. He used electric shocks to jolt a female patient into unconsciousness and, using a hammer, drove an ice pick—one taken from his own kitchen—into her brain through the thin bone of the eye socket called the orbit. He then swiveled the pick back and forth to make the desired cuts.
He saw the operation as one that could be done as an office procedure without a surgeon’s assistance, and he went on to perform thousands of ice-pick operations, usually without gloves or mask....
When an operation went badly, Dr. Freeman discussed the outcome in detached, matter-of-fact terms. “On two occasions I was embarrassed by having the tip of the instrument break and while in neither case does it seem to have done any harm, the patient received no benefit from [the] operation,” he wrote in one undated document.
“In a later case when I thought I had a stronger instrument, the shaft broke at the 6 centimeter mark and lacerated the eyeball of the patient so that not only was she not benefited by operation but she lost the sight of her eye and had to be operated upon for removal of the steel fragment,” he wrote.”
(In case you want to see one for yourself, I embedded one. It's possibly NSFW)
Why a lobotomy?
Here’s the reasoning behind doing a lobotomy,
“In a lobotomy, doctors severed neural connections between the brain’s prefrontal area and the rest of the brain, fibers believed by practitioners to promote excessive emotions.”
And Freeman theorized that if stuck his ice pick and moved it around a bit, that people would start to get better.
I know that it’s easy to look back in hindsight and say that this was horrifying and barbaric. But people thought it was barbaric back then too. The problem was that the whole thing was junk science. There was no actual proof that what he was doing would help people. In fact, the mortality rate for his operations was a staggering 14%!
Of course, with the invention of Thorazine, the use of lobotomies dropped precipitously, and Freeman began to be looked at as inhuman. But Freeman was convinced he had done well still, and the last years of his life were tragic in some respects,
“His son, Prof. Freeman, remembers his father showing up at a medical conference in the 1960s with a large box of Christmas cards from grateful patients and families, evidence he hoped would persuade other doctors that his surgery brought positive results. In his later years, Dr. Freeman roamed the country in a camper, taking photos of former patients, as if reassuring himself of the same thing.”
(I've posted some interesting Freeman bios below in case you're interested in reading them).