Walter Freeman's Lobotomies: Oral Histories

Wolfhard Baumgartel was a staff physician at the Athens State Hospital in Ohio in the 1950s, where he observed Dr. Walter Freeman perform a series of lobotomies. Patricia Moen was lobotomized by Walter Freeman in 1962 at the age of 36. Their oral histories about their experiences are below.

Wolfhard Baumgartel. Ohio, October 2004. Photo: Harvey Wang
Photo: Harvey Wang

'He Made It Look Easy'

 

I am Wolfhard Baumgartel. I'm 82 years old. I was a staff physician at the Athens State Hospital in Ohio in 1954. Not long after I started at the hospital, I had the opportunity to watch Dr. Walter Freeman perform a series of transorbital lobotomies. I was neither a psychiatrist nor a neurologist. I was just a very, very green beginner here who hardly spoke any English, and he was a big shot at that time.

 

As far as I remember, he probably did between 15 or 20 on that particular day. Dr. Freeman did not leave the operating room after each procedure — the patient went out, the next patient was ready to come in, had his procedure done, went out again, and then the next patient came in…

 

I remember that he was relaxed. He was very calm while he was operating. He made it look easy to do it. I think he had an extremely self-confident personality. He didn't have any qualms. He wanted to prove that he was right, he was convinced that he was right. I thought, "How can a man be relaxed just going blindly into a brain ?!" But of course, I didn't have the authority to say, "Stop that!"

 

These patients were not young ones. I think they were all about 30 or 40 years old. I knew two of them. After the operation I found that they had changed in their personality. My impression, which I remember still, was that they didn't ask any questions. Expression of deep turmoil in their heart or in their soul was subdued. There was something missing — emotions, I would say. You know, if you were to converse with somebody, there's always emotion with it. Just take all of your emotion out of a conversation with somebody and what's left?

 

'I Went Home and Started Living'

Patricia and Glen Moen, Oregon, August 2004.
Photo: Harvey Wang

Patricia Moen was lobotomized by Walter Freeman in 1962 at the age of 36. She and her husband live in Oregon. This is the first time they have spoken about her lobotomy.

 

Glen Moen: My name is Glen Moen. I am 79 years old. I signed the release for Pat's lobotomy.

 

Patricia Moen: We have not talked about it, since I had the lobotomy — I don't think ever. My husband is not a great communicator.

 

Glenn: I don't talk to her anymore than I have to.

 

Patricia: Glen — be nice! (Both laugh). We'd been married about 13 years, and it just started. I cried all the time. I just mentally was no good.

 

Glenn: One night I came home and she said, "Well, I've done it now!" She'd taken a whole bottle full of some kind of pills...

 

Patricia: That's when the doctor decided it was time.

 

Glenn: He told me this was the last resort. I couldn't think of any other decision to make.

 

Patricia: Dr. Freeman said, 'You can come out a vegetable, or you can come out dead.' And I guess I was miserable enough that I didn't care.

 

Glenn: I was kind of worried because of the operation of severing a nerve in the brain... It sounded kind of wild to me!

 

Patricia: He was afraid he might lose his cook.

 

Glenn: And I don't like to cook.

 

Patricia: I remember nothing after I saw Dr. Freeman. I don't remember anything. I don't remember going into the hospital, or having it done, or how long I was there. That's all gone.

 

Glenn: We were coming back from San Jose, following the operation, and Pat informed me that she couldn't wait to get home because she wanted to go down and file for divorce.

 

Patricia: Hmmmm… Don't remember that at all. I don't think I said it.

 

Glenn: I think I just went on driving and ignored the situation and began to wonder to myself, 'How much good did this operation accomplish?' Really, I can see no changes in most areas except she's much easier to get along with.

 

Patricia: You didn't see any change in the way I kept house? Or the way I —

 

Glenn: Not crying all the time…

 

Patricia: I was a more free person after I'd had it. Just not to be so concerned about things... I just, I went home and started living, I guess is the best I can say — just started living again and was able to get back into taking care of things and cooking and shopping and that kind of thing...

 

Glenn: Delighted at the way it turned out. It's been a good life.

 

Patricia: Well, thank you.

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