First of all, please take a moment to thank me, Mary Connealy, for NOT using a bunch of the pictures I found. So icky. I stumbled upon lobotomies while doing research for…… what? I can’t remember? If they were still doing lobotomies, they would totally be coming for me. Ick.

We talk about all things western here but there have been some great posts on historical medicine, like this one from Kate Bridges on the contents of a Surgeon’s BagThough lobotomies are outside the historical western era, it’s just one of those things. I start doing research and one step leads me far afield. Here are some facts, some so horrific that I just immediate thought of our loyal P & P readers. (Poor babies!)

Lobotomies were used in the 20th century to treat a wide range of severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, clinical depression, and various anxiety disorders, as well as people who were considered a nuisance by demonstrating behavior characterized as, for example, “moodiness” or “youthful defiance”. After the introduction of the antipsychotic drug Thorazine, lobotomies fell out of common use and the procedure has since been characterized “as one of the most barbaric mistakes ever perpetrated by mainstream medicine”

In 1890, psychiatrist Gottlieb Burckhardt removed pieces of the frontal lobes of six patients.

Psychosurgery was not publicly attempted again until 1910, when Estonian neurosurgeon Ludvig Puusepp operated on a few patients.

Then, in 1935, Portuguese physician and neurologist António Egas Moniz pioneered a surgery he called prefrontal leucotomy. The procedure involved drilling holes in the patient’s head and destroying tissue in the frontal lobes by injecting alcohol. He later changed technique, using a surgical instrument called a leucotome that cut brain tissue with a retractable wire loop. Moniz was given the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1949 for this work

This is where it gets REALLY ICKY! On Jan. 17, 1946, a psychiatrist named Walter Freeman launched a radical new era in the treatment of mental illness in this country. On that day, he performed the first-ever transorbital or “ice-pick” lobotomy in his Washington, D.C., office. Freeman believed that mental illness was related to overactive emotions, and that by cutting the brain he cut away these feelings.

Freeman, equal parts physician and showman, became a barnstorming crusader for the procedure. Before his death in 1972, he performed transorbital lobotomies on some 2,500 patients in 23 states.

 Walter Freeman believed that this surgery would be unavailable to the patients who needed it most: those that lived in state mental hospitals with no operating rooms, no surgeons, no anesthesia, and very little money. Freeman wanted to simplify the procedure so that it could be carried out by psychiatrists in mental asylums, which housed roughly 600,000 American inpatients at the time They’d advertise that Freeman was going to be in the area and put lobotomies on sale and do many of them in one day.

The Freeman-Watts prefrontal lobotomy still required drilling holes in the scalp, so surgery had to be performed in an operating room by trained neurosurgeons.

Freeman decided to access the frontal lobes through the eye sockets, instead of through drilled holes in the scalp. In 1945, he took an icepick from his own kitchen and began to test the new surgical technique on cadavers(if you can stomach it, go to Google Images and type in Lobotomy. Yikes!) A hammer or mallet was then used to drive the ice pick through the thin layer of bone and into the brain. This new form of psychosurgery was intended for use in state mental hospitals that often did not have the facilities for anesthesia, so Freeman suggested using electroconvulsive (that means they’d zap the patient with a bolt of electricity to knock them out-I believe thanks are in order) therapy to render the patient unconscious.

By the mid-1940s, Freeman was touring the country performing dozens of ice-pick lobotomies each day. Sometimes, for kicks, he’d operate left-handed. This is a picture of Freeman, he often had reporters watch the process and welcomed spectators of any kind.

At Cherokee State Hospital in Iowa, he accidentally killed a patient when he stepped back to take a photo during the surgery and allowed the ice pick to sink deep into the patient’s midbrain. Oops! My Bad!

As Freeman conducted more lobotomies, he advertised his dramatic results, promoting his technique as a 10-minute medical marvel. Nearly all his procedures included press coverage and before-and-after photo ops. In 1952, he made headlines by performing 25 lobotomies in a single day. His staff timed him as he tried to set speed records for performing the lobotomies. Freeman soon enjoyed celebrity.

Freeman performed his final lobotomy on Helen Mortensen.  It’s her third lobotomy by him.  She died from a brain hemorrhage following the procedure.  Freeman was banned from operating again.

Between 1939 and 1951, over 18,000 lobotomies were performed in the US, and many more in other countries.  It was often used on convicts, and in Japan it was recommended for use on “difficult” children. 

There have been a few famous cases over the years.  For example, Rosemary Kennedy, sister to John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy, was given a lobotomy when her father complained to doctors about the mildly retarded girl’s embarrassing new interest in boys.  Her father never informed the rest of the family about what he had done.  She lived out her life in a Wisconsin institution and died January 7, 2005, at the age of 86.  Her sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics in her honor in 1968.

Concerns about lobotomy steadily grew. (You THINK?!) By the early 1970s the practice had generally ceased. About time.

I know what you’re all thinking.

You can’t HANDLE the lobotomy–think Jack Nickolsen in A Few Good Men, NOT Jack in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest where he was given a lobotomy. And now that I’ve shared this with you, if you want to buy my books still… (I’ll understand if you’re afraid-there are no lobotomies in my book, I promise) …click on the books below and it’ll take you to Amazon. Even if you’ve had a lobotomy you can handle that!!!!!!!!!!!!

There are still many people living today who had lobotomies. One guy, Howard Dully (ironic name, huh? Dull?) wrote a book about his and got pretty famous for talking about his lobotomy, given at the request of his step-mother when he was twelve.  Okay, a couple of things.

1) If you’ve had a twelve year old, you can sympathize.

2) Hello wicked Stepmother

3) If the guy could write a book, how badly was he really hurt, c’mon!

Anyone ever heard of this? Know anyone who had one? (And no, I don’t want any ex-husband jokes here-unless they’re really funny)

So, how much of the weird medical science they’re doing today will be banned in a few years. And yes, I do include Michael Jackson in that question.





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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series


  1. Nice… I’ve always thought cutting into brains was really icky, but there are some good reasons. Even the ancients knew that.

    More interesting–at least for me 🙂 –Last night on the food network challenge they did pumpkin carving. One of the competitors did a pumpkin with a lobotomy. Now your blog. Is that wierd or what?

    And yes, MJ should be in that banned science category! That’s a whole ‘nother blog, isn’t it? 😛

  2. I’ve heard of lobotomies, but I don’t know anyone who’s had one- that I know of anyway. I just can’t imagine how people believed they really worked. Is there any proof that any of the cases did work? Or did they claim they did, solely based on the surgeries?

    What was considered a successful lobotomy?

    Definitely interesting subjet today Mary. 😀

  3. Oh, yikes, Mary! I heard a radio interview with a man who’d had a lobotomy–it may have been Howard Dully. It was just chilling. He was intelligent and rational, but said he felt like part of his personality was missing. No emotion.
    In my high school sociology class we studied mental illness and, at the time, this was listed as a valid treatment. Shudder.
    Another cinematic reference–Liz Taylor’s Oscar winning performance in Suddenly Last Summer. She plays a woman who’s witnessed such a horrible scene that it’s made her hysterical and her family is going to give her a lobotomy.
    Thanks for a fascinating blog that fits the creepy halloween season.

  4. The thing about ‘results’ is, they were all over the board. Some people were vegetables like Jack Nickolsen looked to be in Cuckoo’s Nest. Some seemed almost completely unaffected. Some went from being really troublesome difficult head cases to being placid but functional.

    You’d think these widely varied results would have made them stop and try to figure out what they were really doing. Instead they’d…what? Cross their fingers and hope for good luck???

    I wonder about that woman who had three. What in heaven’s name was SHE doing that made ‘them’ request lobotomies over and over????

    I mean, yeah, my kids get fed up with me sometimes, but c’mon, is mom really THAT MUCH TROUBLE.

  5. Hi Mary!

    Thanks for all the info. It’s not an easy subject to confront cause it is so gross and intrinicly (excuse the spelling) evil. However, there are still lobotomies being done today — they are called chemical lobotomy — in that the drugs involved destroy very special brain cells — and this kind of lobotomy is currently in vogue in this country in terms of the new psychotropic drugs.

    In truth, every single student killing rage has been traced to the killer being on or just coming off the new drugs. There are reasons for this in that these new drugs do destroy and/or suppress certain brain cells that are supposed to be linked to one’s ability for empathy. For more information of exactly how these new drugs do this, here’s an article that explains it — http://www.newswithviews.com/Ellison/shane25.htm — it’s called Antidepressants Slice and Dice the Brain.

    Thanks for your info on this, Mary.

  6. You know, Karen, we just had this awful rampage killer in Omaha, maybe almost a year ago now.

    I said to a lady I know who deals with group homes for mentally and emotionally disabled people that I blamed legal drugs for these kind of things. I mean, I’ve got no proof, but it seems like ALWAYS these kids on some kind of behavorial drugs and ALWAYS they’ve quit taking them before they have these weird psychotic sprees.

    She assured me no, no, no not possible, and honestly the woman ought to know, but I still wonder if it’s not at least partly the drugs fault, or what happens to the mind when the drugs are stopped.

  7. This Freeman guy reminds me of Dr. Kevorkian. So sure he’s right, so arrogant. He really was a monster, I think. The earlier research seemed like it was based at least in a wish to help. The fact that they tried it and abandoned it tells me that they were scientists and when the evidence didn’t come through, they stopped.
    But not Freeman.
    I’d like to hear more about the Kennedy daughter. That’s all very shrouded isn’t it? How mildly handicapped was she? How much did this change her? If her father had it done and didn’t tell anyone, when did the truth come out?

  8. Mary, you are so right. As this article so vividly points out — this guy is a chemical researcher, by the way — brain cells that seem to be traced to one’s ability for empathy and happiness, are destroyed with these new drugs.

    With a company like Merik going to court over their killing hundreds of thousands of people with Viox — and apparently, they were aware of the danger — I personally would never trust a drug company with my life or my sanity.

    My take anyway.

  9. Isn’t it horrible what can be done in the name of science or for fame or fortune and how ignorant we all can be. I’m sure what we do today will be thought of as barbaric in the years to come.

  10. I always wonder about the lasik eye surgery. I know some many people who’ve had that. I think they’ve been doing it for decades in other countries, too, so surely if there are weird long term bad results we’d know it by now.

    But all the cutting and sewing on people’s bodies they do now adays worries me.
    Like gastric by-pass surgery. What I keep thinking about is my dad, who had to work terribly hard to not waste away in his last years when he had cancer. What if he’d had that surgery and couldn’t eat?

    My sister is a doctor and she told me that in medical school one professor told them, “Twenty years from now they’ll have decided fifty percent of what we’re telling you to do today was wrong.
    Trouble is, we don’t know which fifty percent.”

  11. Wow. Great post, Mary. I immedaitely thought of Rosemary Kennedy when I saw the title of your blog. Glad you mentioned her. I have read that Rose Kennedy (her mother) never forgave her husband for doing this to their daughter, and in spite of his many infidelities, this was the worst thing in their marriage. Rosemary while mildly retarded, was said to have been a lovely quite normal girl. Until…

    Whew. Seems so medieval…yet 20th century!!!

  12. I went and read up on Rosemary Kennedy on wiki and after lots of research doctors now suspect she wasn’t retarded at all. Maybe not high intelligence but definitely not qualified as a mental handicapped. She was wildly unruly though, possibly, it’s suspected, because in that incredibly competitive family, she was always frustrated by her inability to keep up.
    When Dr. Freeman did Rosemary Kennedy’s Lobotomy in 1941 she was the 65th person to have one, very, very early in the business. And she went from an active, engaged young woman to virtually a vegetable. She lived to be 86 years old.

  13. When I was in nursing school in the mid-50s, I was
    assigned to a psychiatric rotation. The treatment
    of the day was electroconvulsive therapy, commonly
    known as electroshock. As part of our studies, we
    were allowed to observe a patient during treatment.
    Not fun!

    Pat Cochran

  14. I had a sort of distant elderly second cousin who had electroshock treatment. Later the family always wondered if he really needed it. He was probably an alcoholic, though did he drink to quiet the noise in his head or did he HAVE the mixed up head because of the drink.

    No one was ever sure.
    He did have that treatment though and the family generally believed that it was so, so, so, so awful he quit drinking and straightened up his life just so he’d never have to go through that again. So in a way, it worked.

  15. Oh, Mary, leave it to you to entertain and educate us with a topic as eerily fascinating as lobotomies!

    I don’t think I like Dr. Freeman very much. Methinks his ego trampled any compassion he might’ve had for his patients.

    Great stuff, Mary!

  16. Mary – Hi, I JUST got back from a lovely lunch with our own Kate, so thank you for filling in for her!! We had lunch at Dupar’s in the Farmer’s Market in Hollyweird, as we call it.

    What a great blog today, icky, but interesting and perfect for our ghoulish holiday on Friday, Halloween!

  17. Hi Mary! (and hi Charlene, LOL! I got back to my hotel safely and am hooked up to my laptop now. Leaving tomorrow for home.)

    Mary, you must have guts made of steel to stomach this topic. Whoa! LOL. And yes, thank you for not posting those pictures you found.

    Very interesting topic, and very sad. Thank God we don’t do these anymore. And yes, I do think of Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember how horrified I was to see him in that scene.

    Halloween’s coming–appropriate topic! 🙂

    Thanks for switching blog days with me!

  18. I didn’t MEAN to learn about lobotomies. You know how it is when you’re researching. You just find stuff and end up reading it and being interested in it, even though you KNOW you should be writing your book.

    So at least I got a blog post out of it!

  19. Yuk,yuk,yuk,double yuk! Mary thank you so much for not using pictures! all in the name of Science. I had elderly relatives who resided in a mental insitution for years. Now they would be known as bi-polar and treated but way back then they were just pened up. Shameful

  20. Hi; great blog.
    I’ve read most of this information before in some form or another– I’m researching lobotomies so I can cobble together a decent project for English class. It was nice to see a good deal of what I’ve already read put together neatly in this post 🙂

    I’ve only one other comment, and it’s about Howard Dully. He was one of the lucky ones. Lobotomy is (I wish I could say “was”) a “blind” surgery: the surgeon does it without seeing or knowing what or where he’s poking. In the case of Rosemary Kennedy, Freeman obviously butchered more of her frontal lobe than he did Dully’s. It’s kind of cool that Dully has stepped forward about the procedure and finally gotten some closure on it. Unfortunately that’s not the case for many of Freeman’s former patients.

    Anyway. Great post, and for sure I’ll be perusing this site in the future for other interesting tidbits. 🙂


  21. There is a song by a group called “Rasputina” called “Rose K.” that talks about Rosemary..It’s very sad and it’s where I first heard about her.

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