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In this podcast, we reprise a 2005 Sound Portraits documentary produced by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay and Piya Kochhar titled “My Lobotomy.”

my_lobotomy-howard1_full“My Lobotomy” follows Howard Dully (pictured and at left in 2004), a bus driver from California, who was given a lobotomy when he was just 12 years old, as he goes in search of the story behind his surgery.

On January 17, 1946, a psychiatrist named Walter J. Freeman launched a radical new era in the treatment of mental illness by performing a transorbital (“ice pick”) lobotomy in his Washington, D.C., office. His first patient was a severely depressed housewife named Sallie Ellen Ionesco.

After rendering her unconscious through electroshock, Dr. Freeman inserted an ice pick above her eyeball, banged it through her eye socket and into her brain, and then made cuts in her frontal lobes. Freeman believed that mental illness was related to overactive emotions and was convinced he’d found the answer to Ionesco’s depression (pictured below in 2004) by cutting her brain and removing those feelings. When he was done, he sent her home in a taxi.

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In the era before psychiatric drugs—when state institutions were overflowing with mentally ill patients often living in terrible conditions—hospitals, families, and the press were eager to embrace “miracle” cures like the “ice pick” lobotomy.

my_lobotomy-sallie_ionesco_fullFor more than two decades, Freeman, equal parts physician and showman, became a barnstorming crusader for the procedure. He traveled in a van to psychiatric hospitals across the country to teach and perform transorbital lobotomies, and before his death in 1972, he performed lobotomies on more than 2,500 patients in 23 states.

Howard Dully was one of those patients.

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. Freeman also photographed each lobotomy he performed, and Howard is the first patient ever to obtain a picture of his own operation (see below photo).“This is my odyssey. Everyone has one thing they have to do before they die, and this is mine.”

In collaboration with Piya Kochhar and Dave Isay, Dully embarked on a remarkable two-year journey to uncover the story behind the lobotomy he received as a 12-year-old boy.


Click here for audio extras.

Click here for more photos.

Click here for a timeline of events.

Click here to hear from witnesses.

Top Photo: Walter J. Freeman operating on a patient at Western State Hospital, Washington, in July 1949, © Bettmann/CORBIS.
Portraits of Howard Dully and Sallie Ellen Ionesco by Harvey Wang.