The Lobotomist

Thanks to this BBC 4 documentary about surgery (I’m not in the UK, so I had to download the torrent which is of a great quality) – Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery – I got to also enjoy this PBS program on Walter “The Lobotomist” Freeman:

Walter Freeman at W. V. State Hospital, 1952.


“The precipitous rise and fall of lobotomy raises important questions about medical innovation,” says filmmaker Barak Goodman. “At what point do interventions meant to alleviate suffering begin to conflict with essential human qualities?”

It was hailed by the New York Times as “surgery of the soul,” a groundbreaking medical procedure that promised hope to the most distressed mentally ill patients and their families. But what began as an operation of last resort was soon being performed at some fifty state asylums, often to devastating results. Little more than a decade after his rise to fame, Walter Freeman, the neurologist who championed the procedure, was decried as a moral monster, and lobotomy one of the most barbaric mistakes of modern medicine.

American Experience presents The Lobotomist, the gripping and tragic story of an ambitious doctor, the desperate families who sought his help, and the medical establishment that embraced him. From award-winning producers Barak Goodman and John Maggio (The Boy in the BubbleThe Fight), this one-hour film features interviews with Dr. Freeman’s former patients and their families, his students, and medical historians, and offers an unprecedented look at one of the darkest chapters in psychiatric history.

The great lesson of lobotomy, of course, is the issue of surgical intervention and mental illness: with the mind/body distinction between progressively disregarded by both folks in the medical profession and those of us on the humanities side, is there a future lobotomy-like procedure that is bound for a comeback?