NPR logo Frequently Asked Questions About Lobotomies

Frequently Asked Questions About Lobotomies

About 50,000 people received lobotomies in the United States, most of them between 1949 and 1952. Read the answers to frequently asked questions about lobotomies.

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 brain is accessed through the eye sockets. Freeman started out by doing prefrontal lobotomies, but later created the transorbital lobotomy which he considered to be a "new, improved" version of the original procedure. The transorbital lobotomy left no scars (apart from two black eyes); took less than 10 minutes; could be performed outside of an operating room; and according to Freeman, produced better results.

What effect did the ice pick lobotomy have on patients?

Freeman believed that cutting certain nerves in the brain could eliminate excess emotion and stabilize a 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, McMurphy receives a transorbital lobotomy.

What type of patient was chosen for a lobotomy?

Freeman's most common reason for lobotomizing a patient was to treat schizophrenia, especially in patients who had just recently been diagnosed with the disease. He also used the procedure to treat chronic pain and suicidal depression. According to a New York Times article from 1937, 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, the oldest sister of President 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 St. Coletta's School in Wisconsin, where she remained until her death this year at the age of 86.

Did Freeman operate on the actress Frances Farmer?

There's some controversy about this. Freeman's son, Frank Freeman, believes that his father did, though there is no documentary evidence to support this.

Source: Sound Portraits