Letters: The Doctor Behind 'My Lobotomy'

On Mondays, we read from our email. Many messages have focused on Howard Dully's radio documentary, My Lobotomy. Howard underwent a now-infamous "ice pick" lobotomy when he was 12. It was performed by neurologist Dr. Walter Freeman. Guest: Jack El-Hai, author, The Lobotomist

NEAL CONAN, host:

On Mondays we read from your e-mails.

And this week we focus on the enormous response to our show last week with Howard Dully. That followed the broadcast of his radio documentary "My Lobotomy." Howard underwent the now infamous ice pick lobotomy when he was 12 years old. Jack El-Hai wrote a book about Dr. Walter Freeman, the neurologist who popularized the procedure, called "The Lobotomist," and he joins us now from the studios of member station KNOW in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. JACK EL-HAI (Author, "The Lobotomist"): Thank you. I'm pleased to be here.

CONAN: David Faffa(ph) sent in this question. `After hearing Mr. Dully's extraordinary and courageous story, I was compelled to do some Internet research on the subject of lobotomy and was stunned to read that many psychiatrists at the time felt compelled to practice the orbital lobotomy procedure for financial reasons,' he wrote, `to keep up with the trend created by Dr. Freeman's marketing strategies and despite the fact that they had no surgical training whatsoever. Is that accurate?'

Mr. EL-HAI: I don't think so. I think that may have happened in a few cases, but Walter Freeman made a big deal, a big effort to train psychiatrists to perform lobotomies. He believed that any physician could learn how to do it competently whether they had surgical training or not, and in fact, Freeman himself was not surgically trained. But I don't think finances were a big motivation for this, because after all, most of the psychiatrists that Freeman trained were in state psychiatric hospitals. They were on salary, in other words.

CONAN: But did he create a market for this by popularizing it?

Mr. EL-HAI: It was his intent to bring lobotomy into the mainstream, and he did succeed in that, and so there was a period of time, maybe about 10 years between 1945 and about 1955, when lobotomy was a treatment, a preferred treatment, a treatment of choice for various mental illnesses. I haven't come across many instances of psychiatrists who felt compelled to perform lobotomies to keep up with the Joneses or with the Freemanses as the case may be.

CONAN: Gena in St. Louis, Missouri, wrote to ask, `Is it true that Walter Freeman traveled around in the '50s and '60s in a car he called the Lobotomobile?'

Mr. EL-HAI: Well, it is true that he traveled around in the 1960s in a Cortez camper, a large recreational vehicle. He didn't call it the Lobotomobile. A few writers after Freeman's death began calling it that. He called it the Cortez. And his purpose in doing this was mainly to track down his lobotomy patients. He was one of the champions of the 20th century in tracking down and following up on his work, and so he was able to locate almost every one of his approximately 3,400 lobotomy patients during those years, and he was interested in finding out what happened to them.

CONAN: Janice Jaquith(ph) in Free Union, Virginia, wrote that she'd been reading a book about the lobotomy performed on Rosemary Kennedy, President Kennedy's sister, in the book "Rose Kennedy and Her Family" by Barbara Gibson and Ted Schwarz. `According to Ms. Gibson, who was Rose Kennedy's secretary for two decades,' she wrote, `Rosemary Kennedy was not mentally retarded. She was never diagnosed as mentally retarded until many years after the lobotomy.' Ms. Gibson theorizes that her father, Joe Kennedy Sr., had Rosemary lobotomized because she was a sexually active 23-year-old. `I'm wondering how common it was to lobotomize sexually active single women.'

Mr. EL-HAI: Well, women by and large did receive lobotomies more often than men, and that's because they more frequently suffered from the kinds of affective or emotional disorders that lobotomy was considered the most effective treatment for at the time. So sometimes those symptoms were expressed in all kinds of ways in these patients, and sexual activity may have been a part of it. I think it's ironic, though, that in Freeman's follow-up studies on his patients, he found that some patients experienced an increase in their desire for sexual activity after their lobotomies, and some patients didn't want as much sexual activity. If that's what Joe Kennedy was after, then there wasn't a 100 percent chance of the likelihood of success.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Mr. EL-HAI: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Jack El-Hai is the author of "The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness." He joined us from the studios of KNOW in St. Paul, Minnesota.

If you have questions, comments or corrections for us, the best way to reach us is by e-mail. The address is totn@npr.org. Please include your name, where you're writing from and any tips we may need to pronounce either or both.

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LIANE HANSEN (Host): This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

CONAN: And I'm Neal Conan.

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