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American Experience: The Lobotomist

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
HEAD GAMES Freeman, right, probes a patient's skull.
Photograph:The Saturday Evening Post, courtesy George Washington University Archives, Freeman-Watts CollectionHEAD GAMES Freeman, right, probes a patient’s skull.

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Dr. Walter J. Freeman has largely been forgotten today, and those familiar with the late neurologist—who popularized the transorbital lobotomy 60 years ago—tend to think of him as an American Josef Mengele. There’s certainly plenty of damning evidence on display in this profile, but its convincing portrayal of Freeman as an altruist corrupted by his own ego makes the doctor come off as a tragic figure rather than a monster.

As a young physician in the 1920s, Freeman was repelled by the medieval conditions at state mental hospitals, where patients received little actual treatment. As a theoretically humane alternative, he adopted the work of Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz and began performing lobotomies on wealthy patients with severe emotional problems (including, disastrously, John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary). After World War II, he developed a cheaper, production-line version of what he once called an “operation of last resort,” and became much less discriminating about whom he treated. When Thorazine began to replace lobotomies at mental hospitals, Freeman turned to the private sector and took to lobotomizing frustrated housewives and unruly children as young as four. By the time of his death in 1972, he had personally performed the procedure almost 3,000 times.

In addition to medical historians, the filmmakers interview Freeman’s sons (who recall him using ice picks from the family kitchen for his procedures) and aides who describe Freeman’s disturbing tendency to treat surgery as theater. Especially affecting is a conversation with Howard Dully—lobotomized by Freeman at age 12 in 1960 because of ADD-like symptoms—who offers a heartrending account of how he was robbed of all motivation and self-esteem. Opponents of widespread medication claim that many drugs have the same effect, but at least pills wear off.

—Andrew Johnston

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