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Walter Freeman

Dr. Walter Jackson Freeman II (November 14, 1895 – May 31, 1972) was a physician, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a graduate of Yale and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and an advocate and very prolific practitioner of psychosurgery, specifically lobotomy. Freeman was born into an affluent and distinguished family. His family traced back to the Mayflower, his father was a successful doctor in Philadelphia, and his grandfather, William Keen, was a President of the American Medical Association.

Additional recommended knowledge


Freeman performed 2500 lobotomies in 23 states, mostly based on scanty and flimsy evidence for its scientific basis[1][2], but more significantly he popularized the lobotomy as a legitimate form of psychosurgery. A neurologist and psychiatrist without surgical training, he initially worked with several surgeons, including James W. Watts. In 1936, he and Watts became the first American doctors to perform prefrontal lobotomy.

Frustrated by his lack of surgical training and seeking a faster and less invasive way to perform the procedure, Freeman invented the "ice pick" or transorbital lobotomy, which, at first, literally used an ice pick hammered through the back of the eye socket into the brain. Freeman was able to perform these very quickly, outside of an operating theatre, and without the assistance of an actual surgeon. For his first transorbital lobotomies, Freeman used an actual icepick from his kitchen. Later, he utilized an instrument created specifically for the operation called a leucotome. In 1948 Freeman developed a new technique which involved wrenching the leucotome in an upstroke after the initial insertion. This procedure placed great strain on the instrument and often resulted in the leucotome breaking off in the patient's skull. As a result, Freeman designed a new, stronger instrument, the orbitoclast.

Freeman embarked on a national campaign in his van which he called his "lobotomobile" to demonstrate the procedure to surgeons working at state-run institutions; Freeman would show off by icepicking both of a patient's eyesockets at one time - one with each hand.[3] According to some, institutional care was hampered by lack of effective treatments and extreme overcrowding, and Freeman saw the transorbital lobotomy as an expedient tool to get large populations out of treatment and back into private life.

The “ice pick lobotomy” was, according to Ole Enersen, performed by Freeman “with a recklessness bordering on lunacy, touring the country like a travelling evangelist. In most cases,” Enersen continued, “this procedure was nothing more than a gross and unwarranted mutilation carried out by a self righteous zealot.”[4]

Freeman's most notorious operation was on the ill-fated Rosemary Kennedy, who was permanently incapacitated by a lobotomy at age 23. Another of his patients, Howard Dully has now written a book called My Lobotomy about his experiences with Freeman and his long recovery after the surgery.[5]

The urban legend that Freeman operated on actress Frances Farmer has been conclusively disproven: the author who initially alleged this admitted in a court proceeding that he had made it up[6], Farmer's medical records show she was never operated on while institutionalized, and Freeman biographer Jack El-Hai (The Lobotomist), who had access to Freeman's patient records, found no reference to Farmer whatsoever.

With the advent of antipsychotic drugs, notably Thorazine, in the mid-1950s, lobotomy fell out of favor as a treatment, and Freeman saw his reputation crumble quickly. He continued to drive cross country in his "lobotomobile" to visit his former patients until his death from cancer in 1972.

See also

  • Athens Lunatic Asylum (Freeman's employer during some of his early surgeries)
  • Lobotomy


  1. ^ S Abimbola, The white cut: Egas Moniz, lobotomy, and the Nobel prize, British Medical Journal
  2. ^
  3. ^ My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey
  4. ^ [Enersen OD. Antonio Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz.]
  5. ^ Dully, Howard (March 6th, 2008). My Lobotomy. Ebury Press. ISBN 9780091922122. 
  6. ^ Shedding Light on Shadowland
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Walter_Freeman". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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