Prof. Tamara O’Callaghan
5 May 2017
Walter Freeman and the Invention of the Lobotomy
In Steely Library’s digital archives, one of the postcards from the Gilliam family collection is entitled Western Kentucky Asylum for the Insane, Hopkinsville, KY. The postcard dates back to 1915 and portrays a beautiful building, complete with red bricks and white columns. Many of the insane asylums around this time were built similarly, but even their picturesque exterior could not hide the horrors which occurred within. Insane asylums built in the early to mid 1900s were still getting on their feet, and many of them encountered problems with patient care early on. Patients could be difficult to handle, but instead of working with them and following standard medical procedures for the time, several asylums performed risky operations with no regard to their consent, health, or safety. One of the most notorious cases of unethical treatment began with Walter Freeman and his invention of the lobotomy.
Walter Freeman was a prominent researcher in the United States in the 1930's-1950's. He served as a committee member of two national boards and was known for his text on brain pathology (Getz 140). However, before Freeman began his work with psychosurgery, he was the senior medical officer and supervised all of the medical laboratories at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. St. Elizabeth's was the first federal psychiatric facility in the nation and was one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in the world. The hospital employed almost four thousand staff members and housed around seven thousand patients. Freeman's role did not include engaging with the patients on a personal level, and he described his initial reaction upon meeting them as a mixture of fear, disgust, and shame. Afraid of contact with living patients, Freeman only allowed himself physical contact with their bodies in the pathology laboratory where he set out to learn all that he could about the brain of the psychotic (Johnson, "American Lobotomy" 22-23).
Freeman later accepted a teaching position at George Washington University within the Department of Neurology. While working with one of his colleagues, a neurosurgeon, Freeman developed what was known as the "precision method" of prefrontal lobotomy, which he adapted from Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz. Moniz and Freeman first met at a full-day session on the physiology of the frontal lobes. Moniz had the idea to operate on the frontal lobe as a psychosurgical treatment for severe mental disorders, such schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder (Diefenbach 60). After the session, Moniz began experimenting with his patients' frontal lobes, and Freeman quickly adopted the practice. In the primary prefrontal lobotomy, the surgeons drilled two holes through the skull, inserted a specialized instrument called a leucotome into the brain, and swept it back and forth to sever the fibers between ...