On January 17, 1946 a psychiatrist named Walter J. 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. His patient was a severely depressed housewife named Sallie Ellen Ionesco.
After rendering her unconscious through electroshock, Freeman inserted an ice pick above her eyeball, banged it through her eye socket into her brain, and then made cuts in her frontal lobes. When he was done, he sent her home in a taxi cab.
Freeman was convinced he’d found the answer to Sallie Ellen Ionesco’s depression. He believed that mental illness was related to overactive emotions, and that by cutting the brain he could cut away those feelings.
Recorded in New York City. Premiered November 16, 2005, on All Things Considered.
In the era before psychiatric drugs when state institutions were over-flowing with mentally ill patients often living in snakepit conditions hospitals, families, and the press were eager to embrace “miracle” cures like the “ice pick” lobotomy.
For over two decades, Freeman equal parts physician and showman became a barnstorming crusader for the procedure. He traveled in a van to 55 psychiatric hospitals across the country, performing and teaching the transorbital lobotomy.
Before his death in 1972, he’d crossed and re-crossed the nation 11 times, and had performed the “ice pick” lobotomy on no less than 2500 patients in 23 states.
Howard Dully was one of the youngest patients to receive an “ice pick” lobotomy. Today, he is a tour bus driver living in California.
In collaboration with Sound Portraits producers Piya Kochhar and Dave Isay, Dully embarked on a remarkable two year journey to uncover the hidden story behind the lobotomy he received as a 12-year-old child. Warning: the following includes graphic images.
While working on this documentary, Howard Dully traveled to Washington, D.C. to view his sealed patient records. Dr. Walter Freeman photographed each transorbital lobotomy procedure. Howard Dully is the first patient ever to obtain a picture of his own operation.
Dully’s personal journey to find out about his lobotomy took him around the country as he interviewed lobotomy patients, their family members, and people who witnessed the operation. “This is my odyssey,” said Dully. “Everyone has one thing have to do before they die, and this is mine.”
Read more about Howard’s life in My Lobotomy: A Memoir.
November 14, 1895:
Walter Jackson Freeman II born.
Freeman arrives in Washington, D.C. to direct labs at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
November 12, 1935:
Neurologist Egas Moniz performs first brain surgery to treat mental illness in Portugal. He calls the procedure a “leucotomy.”
September 14, 1936:
Freeman modifies Moniz’s procedure, renames it the “lobotomy,” and with his neurosurgeon partner James Watts performs the first ever prefrontal lobotomy in the United States. His patient is Alice Hood Hammatt, a housewife from Topeka, Kansas.
While working in his office, Egas Moniz is shot multiple times by a patient. He survives but is left partly paralyzed.
Freeman begins experimenting with a new way of doing the lobotomy, after hearing about a doctor in Italy who accessed the brain through the eye-sockets.
January 17, 1946:
Walter Freeman performs the first transorbital lobotomy in the United States on a 29-year-old housewife named Sallie Ellen Ionesco in his Washington, D.C. office.
Egas Moniz wins the Nobel Prize for lobotomy. He’s nominated by Walter Freeman.
Watts expresses disapproval of the transorbital lobotomy procedure, and the two eventually break their long-time partnership. Freeman barnstorms the nation, performing and teaching the transorbital lobotomy at state hospitals. Listen to a newsreel of Walter Freeman’s voice (MP3 format, 5:35, 2MB)
Freeman performs 228 transorbital lobotomies in a two-week period in West Virginia for a state-sponsored lobotomy project, dubbed “Operation Ice Pick” by newspapers.
Era of widespread hospital psychosurgery fades away with introduction of chlorpromazine (Thorazine). Freeman moves to California and sets up an office in Sunnyvale. See the Christmas card Walter Freeman sent out to his lobotomy patients.
Egas Moniz dies at the age of 81.
December 16, 1960:
Freeman lobotomizes Howard Dully, 12, at Doctor’s General Hospital in San Jose, California.
Freeman performs his final transorbital lobotomy on Helen Mortensen. It’s her third lobotomy by him. She dies from a brain hemorrhage following the procedure. Freeman is banned from operating again.
Freeman retires and embarks on cross-country follow-up studies of his lobotomy patients. Listen to audio diary recorded by Walter Freeman that year. (MP3 format, 0:50, 300 kb)
May 31, 1972:
Freeman dies of cancer at age 76.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a prefrontal lobotomy and a transorbital lobotomy?
The two procedures differ in how the doctor gets access to the brain. In a prefrontal lobotomy, the doctor drills holes in the side or on top of the patient’s skull to get to the frontal lobes. In the transorbital lobotomy, the doctor accesses the brain through the eye sockets. Freeman started out by doing prefrontal lobotomies, but later created the transorbital lobotomy, which he considered to be an improved version of the original procedure. The transorbital lobotomy left no scars (apart from two black eyes), took less than 10 minutes, and could be performed outside of an operating room. According to Freeman, it produced better results.
What effect did the transorbital lobotomy have on patients?
Freeman believed that cutting certain nerves in the brain could eliminate excess emotion and stabilize one’s personality. Indeed, many people who received the transorbital lobotomy seemed to lose their ability to feel intense emotions, appearing childlike and less prone to worry. But the results were variable, according to Dr. Elliot Valenstein, a neurologist who wrote a book about the history of lobotomies: “Some patients seemed to improve, some became ‘vegetables,’ some appeared unchanged and others died.” In Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randall McMurphy receives a transorbital lobotomy.
What type of patients received lobotomies?
Freeman’s most common rationale for performing lobotomies was to treat schizophrenia, especially in patients who’d just recently been diagnosed with the disease. He also used the procedure to treat chronic pain and suicidal depression. A New York Times article from 1937 stated that people with the following symptoms would benefit from a lobotomy: “Tension, apprehension, anxiety, depression, insomnia, suicidal ideas, delusions, hallucinations, crying spells, melancholia, obsessions, panic states, disorientation, psychalgesia (pains of psychic origin), nervous indigestion and hysterical paralysis.”
How many people were lobotomized in the United States?
About 50,000 people received lobotomies in the United States, most of them between 1949 and 1952. About 10,000 of these procedures were transorbital lobotomies. The rest were mostly prefrontal lobotomies. Walter Freeman performed about 3,500 lobotomies during his career, of which 2,500 were his “ice pick” procedure.
Did Freeman operate on Rosemary Kennedy?
Yes, he did in the summer of 1941. This operation was one of his most famous failures. Freeman and his neurosurgeon partner James Watts performed a prefrontal lobotomy on Rosemary Kennedy, leaving her inert and unable to speak more than a few words. After her lobotomy she was sent to live at Saint Coletta’s School in Wisconsin, where she remained until her death in 2005 at the age of 86.
Did Freeman operate on the actress Frances Farmer?
There’s some controversy about this. Though Freeman’s son Frank Freeman believes that his father did, there is no documentary evidence to support this. To learn more, visit Shedding Light on Shadowland.
This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.