Walter Jackson Freeman (1895 – 1972)
Tom Waits famously said that he’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Many of us like to give a piece of our mind but not in the way the latest practitioner of quackery to come under our microscope, Walter Jackson Freeman, intended.
A prominent neurologist and psychiatrist, Freeman popularised the lobotomy by making it easy and convenient. During his long career he performed 3,439 lobotomies. He was encouraged to embark upon a career performing these brutal surgical procedures when he discovered that chimpanzees became subdued when their frontal lobes were damaged, with a colleague, James Watts, he started experimenting on brains supplied by the local morgue. Freeman believed that a lobotomy was effective because it severed the connections between the frontal lobes and the thalamus of which the mentally ill were over endowed and which was thought to be the seat of human emotions.
By 1936 they were ready for their first patient, a sufferer of agitated depression, a Mrs Hammett, who had six holes drilled into the top of her head. She lived for a further five years and in an Abraham Lincoln like moment, Freeman declared she “was able to go to the theatre and enjoy the play”.
Freeman’s breakthrough in making the procedure more efficient was in perfecting what was known as the ice pick technique. This form of transorbital lobotomy involved the insertion of a sharp instrument – initially he used was an ice pick – through the inside corner of the eye, tapping it with a small hammer until it broke through the skull bone and entered the frontal lobe of the poor unfortunate’s brain and wiggling it around to sever the neural connections. The procedures were conducted outside an operating theatre – Freeman, naturally, had no formal surgical qualifications – and without anaesthetic, although the victim was incapacitated by electroshock therapy.
Freeman moved away from the ice pick, inventing an instrument called the leucotome, which he had to further refine when one snapped and lodged in a patient’s orbital socket. Inevitably, with a procedure such as this there were some casualties – Freeman eventually lost his medical licence when one of his patients died during the procedure – but hospitals and medical institutions were prepared to put up with the procedure because the post-operative patients living in a Freeman induced state of lethargy were easier to deal with.
In true quack fashion, the loss of a medical licence didn’t bother Freeman. He travelled the U.S in his Lobotomobile, tending to the poor and needy, charging $25 a go – a cheap and, seemingly, effective way of dealing with a relative who has gone gaga. Again, revealing another trait of the consummate quack, Freeman was a showman using graphic exhibits to publicise his procedure and using hand-held clackers to draw crowds.
What seems astonishing to me is that he had repeat patients and one of them, a Helen Mortensen, who was receiving her third lobotomy, proved to be his undoing in 1967. During the course of the procedure Freeman severed a blood vessel. The unfortunate Mrs Mortensen died three days later from cerebral haemorrhaging. This was the final straw and Freeman was banned from performing surgery and so his astonishing career came to an end.