'My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey Over the past two years, Howard Dully, 56, has embarked on a quest to discover the story behind the procedure he received as a 12-year-old boy: a transorbital or "ice-pick" lobotomy.

'My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5014080/5015520" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

On January 17th, 1946, a psychiatrist named Walter Freeman launched a radical new era in the treatment of mental illness in this country. On that day he performed the first ever transorbital or "ice pick" lobotomy in his Washington, DC office. Freeman believed that mental illness was related to overactive emotions and that by cutting the brain, he cut away these feelings. Freeman was equal part physician and showman, and he became a barnstorming crusader for the procedure. Before his death in 1972, he performed ice pick lobotomies on no less than 2,500 patients in 23 states.

One of Freeman's youngest patients is today a 56-year-old bus driver living in California. Over the past two years he's embarked on a quest to discover the story behind the procedure he received as a 12-year-old child. His story, My Lobotomy, was produced by Piya Kochhar and Dave Isay.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PATRICIA DERIAN: We went into a room, and there was a stretcher there.

LARRY (Psychiatric Patient): He came in with something of a flourish, and he had his valise.

Ms. DERIAN: And the first person was brought in and strapped down, given an electroshock.

Ms. HELEN CULMER: He had an instrument. To me, it looked like a nail, a great big nail.

Ms. DERIAN: It was silver.

Mr. FRANK FREEMAN (Dr. Walter Freeman's Son): It looked like a screwdriver, only a sharp point.

Dr. KARL PRIBRAM: It was an ice pick.

Dr. J. LAWRENCE POOL (Brain Surgeon): An ice pick!

Dr. WOLFHARD BAUMGARTEL: They call it ice pick. But, of course, it was a surgical instrument.

Dr. PRIBRAM: Then he held the ice pick parallel to the nose.

Dr. POOL: Slid it under the eyelid.

Dr. ELLIOT VALENSTEIN: And he tapped it above the eyeball.

Dr. PRIBRAM: Through the orbit of the eye.

Dr. ROBERT LICHTENSTEIN: So there'd be a little crunch.

Dr. POOL: And then he'd shove it up into the forward part of the brain.

Dr. BAUMGARTEL: And then he did the other side.

LARRY: He took the probes, he put his hands on each one and then he twirled them kind of in an eggbeater fashion for a little while in the frontal part of the brain.

Dr. LICHTENSTEIN: And then he would take a picture of it.

LARRY: Then he just took a hold of each probe and pulled it with a big yank, and that was that.

Mr. FREEMAN: It took between seven and eight minutes. It was very quick.

Dr. BAUMGARTEL: Patient went out. The next patient was ready to come in and had his procedure done. Then the next patient came in.

Ms. DERIAN: There was total silence among those of us who were watching. It was riveting.

(Soundbite of vintage interview)

Dr. WALTER FREEMAN (Psychiatrist): This is Walter Freeman, MD, PhD. I am 72 years old now.

Mr. HOWARD DULLY (Lobotomy Patient): This is Howard Dully. In 1960, when I was 12, I was lobotomized by this man, Dr. Walter Freeman. Until this moment I haven't shared this fact with anyone, except my wife and a few close friends. Now I'm sharing it with you.

(Soundbite of vintage interview)

Dr. FREEMAN: In the past four weeks I've come 7,000 miles chasing up patients.

Mr. H. DULLY: This is one of the only recordings of Dr. Freeman's voice. He made it in 1968, eight years after he operated on me. If you saw me, you'd never know I had a lobotomy. The only thing you'd notice is that I'm very tall and weigh about 350 pounds. But I've always felt different, wondered if something's missing from my soul. I have no memory of the operation and never had the courage to ask my family about it. So two years ago I set out on a journey to learn everything I could about my lobotomy.

(Soundbite of vintage interview)

Dr. FREEMAN: ...lobotomy was done at that time, and...

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, hi.

Mr. H. DULLY: Hi. How do you do?

Mr. FREEMAN: Frank Freeman.

Mr. H. DULLY: Howard Dully.

I found Walter Freeman's son, Frank, in a little apartment only an hour's drive from my house.

Dr. FREEMAN: Pleasure to meet you, by God.

Mr. H. DULLY: Frank Freeman is 79 years old and works as a security guard. I asked him what he remembers about the procedure his father created in 1946.

Mr. FREEMAN: We had several ice picks that just cluttered the back of that kitchen drawer. And the first ice pick came right out of our drawer, a humble ice pick, to go right into the frontal lobes. It was--from a cosmetic standpoint, it was diabolical. Just observing this thing, it was horrible, gruesome.

Mr. H. DULLY: Frank Freeman tells me that the operation was invented in Portugal in 1935. The original procedure involved drilling holes in the patient's skull to get to the brain. Walter Freeman brought the operation to America and gave it a name, the lobotomy. Freeman and a surgeon partner performed the first American lobotomy in 1936. It made the front page of The New York Times. They called it surgery of the soul. Walter Freeman's lobotomy became famous, but soon he grew impatient.

Mr. FREEMAN: My father decided there must be a better way.

Mr. H. DULLY: He set out to create a new procedure, one that didn't require drilling holes in the head, the transorbital lobotomy. Freeman was convinced that his 10-minute lobotomy was destined to revolutionize medicine and spent the rest of his life trying to prove his point.

Mr. FREEMAN: I guess you'd call it a magnificent obsession. I've never been able to sit down and talk with one of my father's patients. It's been a darn good experience to meet you.

Mr. H. DULLY: It's opened my eyes some.

Mr. FREEMAN: Great.

Mr. H. DULLY: I was age 12 when I had it.

Mr. FREEMAN: Good heavens.

Mr. H. DULLY: I still haven't sat with my father and talked about it.

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah, mm-hmm, yeah.

Mr. H. DULLY: Are you proud of your father?

Mr. FREEMAN: Oh, yes, yeah, yeah. He was terrific. He was really quite a remarkable pioneer lobotomist. I wish he could have gotten further. Yeah.

Unidentified Speaker: OK. Happy trails, everybody.

(Soundbite of a door closing; music)

Mr. H. DULLY: The age of the ice pick lobotomy started out with promise. Walter Freeman performed the procedure for the first time in his Washington, DC, office on January 17th, 1946. His patient was a housewife named Ellen Ionesco. Her daughter, Angelene Forester, was there that day.

Ms. ANGELENE FORESTER (Lobotomy Patient's Daughter): She was absolutely violently suicidal beforehand. After the transorbital lobotomy, there was nothing. It stopped immediately. It was just peace. I don't know how to explain it to you. It was like turning a coin over, that quick. So whatever he did, he did something right.

Mr. H. DULLY: Today Ellen Ionesco is 88 years old and lives about a mile from her daughter in a nursing home in Virginia. Walter Freeman kept in touch with his first transorbital patient for the rest of his life.

Ms. ELLEN IONESCO (Lobotomy Patient): He was just a great man. That's all I can say.

Ms. FORESTER: Do you remember what his face looked like, Mama?

Ms. IONESCO: I don't remember.

Ms. FORESTER: Do you remember his office?

Ms. IONESCO: I don't remember that either. I don't remember nothing else. I'm very tired.

Ms. FORESTER: Do you want to go lie down or do you want...

I remember sitting on his lap, and his beard was pointed and it was very soft. As a child, you kind of see into people's souls, and he was good, at least then. I don't know what happened after that. I wish he hadn't gotten quite so out of hand.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. H. DULLY: By 1949, the transorbital lobotomy had caught on. Walter Freeman lobotomized patients in mental institutions across the country. He narrated this instructional movie promoting the procedure.

(Soundbite of instructional movie)

Dr. FREEMAN: This is a boy of 19, a dreamy, sensitive individual interested particularly in the current musical idiom of bebop. A transorbital lobotomy was performed on August 1st. Within a few days the patient resumed playing the saxophone. Hallucinations subsided.

(Soundbite of saxophone music)

Dr. VALENSTEIN: It was a terribly crude procedure.

Mr. H. DULLY: I interviewed Dr. Elliot Valenstein, who wrote a book about the history of lobotomy.

Dr. VALENSTEIN: There were some very unpleasant results, very tragic results and some excellent results and a lot in between.

Mr. H. DULLY: Why do you think the procedure became so popular?

Dr. VALENSTEIN: Well, primarily because there was no other way of treating people who were seriously mentally ill. The drugs weren't introduced until the mid-1950s in the United States, and the psychiatric institutions were overcrowded. They were willing to try almost anything.

Mr. H. DULLY: Hmm.

Dr. VALENSTEIN: I think the problem with the whole lobotomy period was that it spread like wildfire; that there was a lot of publicity, a lot of exaggerated success. Initially there was a lot of demand for the operations because there were many parents and family members who were desperately in need of help and not getting any. And it spread not only for seriously ill patients but to a lot of people who were not that seriously ill.

(Soundbite of instructional manual)

Dr. FREEMAN: The operator lifts the upper eyelid...

Mr. H. DULLY: By 1950, Walter Freeman's lobotomy revolution was in full swing. Newspapers described it as `easier than curing a toothache.' Freeman was a showman and liked to shock his audience of doctors and nurses by performing two-handed lobotomies, hammering ice picks into both eyes at once. In 1952, he performed 228 lobotomies in a two-week period in West Virginia alone, lobotomizing 25 women in a single day. Through it all Freeman's fame grew, but he wasn't satisfied. He decided that his 10-minute lobotomy could be used on others besides the incurably mentally ill.


Ms. CAROL NOELL (Lobotomy Patient's Daughter): Hi.

Mr. H. DULLY: I'm Howard Dully.

Ms. NOELL: Hi.

Mr. H. DULLY: It's good to see you.

Ms. NOELL: It's good to see you.

Mr. H. DULLY: I fly to Atlanta, Georgia, to meet Carol Noell. Carol tells me her mother suffered from severe headaches. In 1950, she was referred to Walter Freeman, who prescribed a transorbital lobotomy.

Ms. NOELL: That's when the fun began.

Mr. H. DULLY: The procedure cured Carol's mom of her headaches but left her with the mind of a child.

Ms. NOELL: Did she worry about stuff? Nope, didn't worry. Just as Freeman promised, she didn't worry. She had no concept of social graces. If someone was having a gathering at their home, she had no problem with going into their house and taking a seat, too. Not a problem.

Mr. H. DULLY: There you go.

Ms. NOELL: Will you hand me Auntie Ruth's picture from back there? That's her. Is she pretty?

Mr. H. DULLY: A beautiful woman.

Ms. NOELL: She was so smart. She was so smart, but she had no place to put it. The only outlet she had was beating every pinball machine in town and knowing how many pennies were in the jar at the carnival, you know. She was the greatest playmate we ever had and the best friend, and we loved her to death. But I never remember calling her mama or mommy or anything. I never even thought of my mother as my daughter's grandmother, and I never even took my daughter to see her, not one time. So she never even got to have that.

Mr. H. DULLY: So, needless to say, to ask you if you think about this a lot would be an understatement.

Ms. NOELL: I make sure I never forget it.

Mr. H. DULLY: Me either.

Ms. NOELL: Do you ever wonder how come it is that we're at the age we are and we can't seem to say, `OK, that was then, this is now'? Why are we even--why are you bothering?

Mr. H. DULLY: Because it's not OK.

Ms. NOELL: Yeah.

Mr. H. DULLY: And it's not finished.

Dr. POOL: My name is Dr. J. Lawrence Pool. I'm now 97 years old. I dedicated my life to brain surgery. I did not approve of Dr. Freeman's ice pick method, no. I said, `Walter, I don't approve of this procedure.' He knew that. Dr. Freeman did some in his office and would send the patients home by taxi cab, just as you go to the dentist and get a filling and send them home by taxi. I tell you it gave me a sense of horror. How would you like to step into a psychiatrist's office and have him take out a sterilized ice pick and shove it into the brain over your eyeball? Would you like the idea? No.

Mr. H. DULLY: In 1954, with the introduction of the first psychiatric drug Thorazine, Walter Freeman's lobotomy revolution was over. Almost overnight there was no more demand for his services. The procedure was obsolete. But Walter Freeman refused to let go. He opened a small office in California and kept on performing the procedure. The office happened to be only a couple miles from my home.

Hello. Are you David Anderson?

Mr. DAVID ANDERSON (George Washington University): Yes, I am.

Mr. H. DULLY: Howard Dully.

I fly to Washington, DC, to visit the George Washington University archive, which holds 24 boxes of Walter Freeman's sealed files. I request to see my records. I'm the first patient ever to do so.

Mr. ANDERSON: If you'd go ahead and fill this out because we...

Mr. H. DULLY: My file has everything: a photo of me with the ice picks in my eyes; medical bills. But all I care about are the notes. I want to understand why this was done to me.

(Reading) `Mrs. Dully came in to talk about her stepson, who is now 12 years old.'

It's pretty much as I suspected. My real mother died of cancer when I was five. My dad remarried, and his new wife, my stepmother, hated me. I never understood why, but it was clear she'd do anything to get rid of me. Evidently she heard about Dr. Freeman and figured he could help.

(Soundbite of readings)

Mr. H. DULLY: `Mrs. Dully called up to say that Howard has been unbelievably defiant with a savage look on his face. And at times she was almost...'

`He doesn't react either to love or to punishment. He objects to going to bed but then sleeps well.

`He does a good deal of daydreaming, and when asked about it, he says `I don't know.'

`He turns a room's lights on when there's broad sunlight outside.'

`He hates to wash.' (Laughs) Oh, OK.

After a couple of weeks of building her case, she brought me to meet Dr. Freeman.

(Reading) `On October 26th, 1960, Howard is rather tall, slender, somewhat withdrawn type of individual. The first interview today was largely a matter of getting acquainted. He told about his paper route, which brings him some $20 each month, and he's saving up to get a record player. Howard is rather evasive about talking about things that go on in the home.

November 30th, my birthday.

(Reading) `Mrs. Dully came in for a talk about Howard. Things have gotten much worse, and she can barely endure it. I explain to Mrs. Dully that the family should consider the possibility of changing Howard's personality by means of transorbital lobotomy. Mrs. Dully said it was up to her husband and that I would have to talk with him and make it stick.'

December 3rd, 1960.

(Reading) `Mr. and Mrs. Dully have apparently decided to have Howard operated on. I suggested them not tell Howard anything about it.'

December 17th, 1960.

(Reading) `I performed transorbital lobotomy.' This is the physician's service report. `Transorbital lobotomy: A sharp instrument was thrust through the orbital roof and moved so as to sever brain pathways in the frontal lobes. $200 for surgery.'

So the whole thing was 200 bucks? Well, that's pretty cheap. How fantastic.

January 4th, 1961.

(Reading) `I told Howard what I had done to him today, and he took it without a quiver. He sits quietly grinning most of the time and offering nothing.'

And I was supposed to fight all this, huh? No way. Twelve-year-olds couldn't stand against all that. Just wasn't fair.

When my stepmother saw the operation didn't turn me into a vegetable, she got me out of the house. I was made a ward of the state. It took me years to get my life together. Through it all, I've been haunted by questions. Did I do something to deserve this? Can I ever be normal? And most of all: Why did my dad let this happen? In 44 years, we've never discussed it once, not even after my stepmother died.

It took me a year of working on this project before I even got up the courage to write him a letter. `Dear Dad, I am writing you this letter because I've got my records on the operation I had as a boy, and I have some questions to ask. I've not asked them before this out of love for you, and I'm afraid that asking will change your love for me. The operation has haunted me all my life. Now that I'm 56 years old, I would like to sit down with you and...'

I couldn't believe it. My dad agreed to talk.

I'm here with my Dad. I've waited for over 40 years for this moment. Thank you for being here with...

Mr. RODNEY DULLY: I tell you anything that needs to be answered.

Mr. H. DULLY: OK. So we're here to talk about my transorbital lobotomy. So how did you find Dr. Freeman?

Mr. R. DULLY: I didn't; she did. She took you. I don't--I think she tried some other doctors that said, `Huh-uh, there's nothing wrong here. He's a normal boy.' It was the stepmother problem.

Mr. H. DULLY: My question would be naturally: Why would you let it happen to me if that was the case?

Mr. R. DULLY: I got manipulated, pure and simple. I was sold a bill of goods. She sold me and Freeman sold me, and I didn't like it.

Mr. H. DULLY: Did you ever meet Dr. Freeman, and what was he like?

Mr. R. DULLY: I only met him I think the one time. He described how accurate it was and that he had practiced the cutting on literally a carload of grapefruit, getting the right move and the right turn. That's what he told me.

Mr. H. DULLY: Have you ever seen a picture of the operation and the procedure at all?

Mr. R. DULLY: No.

Mr. H. DULLY: Would you mind if I showed you one or...

I show my dad the photograph of me at 12 years old with the ice picks in my eyes.

Mr. R. DULLY: Oh! The thing I'm intrigued by is how you look so calm.

Mr. H. DULLY: Is there anything in this that you regret at all?

Mr. R. DULLY: See, that's negative, and I don't dwell on negative ideas. I see what--and what am I talking about?

Mr. H. DULLY: Be positive.

Mr. R. DULLY: I always try to be positive. I don't make it always.

Mr. H. DULLY: OK. But this was--you know, this was really (clears throat)--excuse me--has affected my whole life.

Mr. R. DULLY: Nobody is perfect. Could I do it over again? Would I have? Ooh, hindsight's beautiful. Fifty years later I can say this was a mistake...

Mr. H. DULLY: Yeah.

Mr. R. DULLY: ...but so was World War I a mistake.

Mr. H. DULLY: So why do you think it's been so hard for us to talk about this, in your estimation?

Mr. R. DULLY: Largely because you never asked about it. You never asked about it. It was an unpleasant part of my life, and I don't particularly want to delve into it.

Mr. H. DULLY: Although he refuses to take any responsibility, just sitting here with my dad and getting to ask him questions about my lobotomy is the happiest moment of my life.

Well, I want to thank you for doing this with me. I really do. I never thought that this would ever happen.

Mr. R. DULLY: Well, you see, miracles occur.

Mr. H. DULLY: Actually what I wanted to do was tell you that I love you very much.

Mr. R. DULLY: Well, whatever made you think I didn't know that?

Mr. H. DULLY: You did? Well, I...

Mr. R. DULLY: You shaped up pretty good.

Mr. H. DULLY: And I feel very happy about it.

Mr. R. DULLY: That's what I want to hear.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. H. DULLY: After 2,500 operations, Walter Freeman performed his final ice pick lobotomy on a housewife named Helen Mortenson in February 1967. She died of a brain hemorrhage, and Freeman's career was finally over. But he never lost faith. He sold his home and spent the rest of his days traveling the country in a camper visiting old patients, trying desperately to prove his procedure had transformed thousands of lives for the better. Walter Freeman died of cancer in 1972. To those few who remember his name, most think of him as a monster.

Ms. REBECCA WELCH (Lobotomy Patient's Daughter): I don't know who could have perceived this procedure as a miracle cure. The only thing I see that came out of it was the hurt and pain for a lot of people.

Mr. H. DULLY: Rebecca Welch's mother, Anita, was lobotomized by Dr. Walter Freeman for postpartum depression in 1953.

Ms. WELCH: You're all dressed up today.

Ms. ANITA McGEE: Thank you.

Mr. H. DULLY: After spending most of her life in mental institutions, today Anita McGee lives in a nursing home in Birmingham, Alabama. Rebecca visits her every week. She believes Walter Freeman's lobotomy destroyed her mother's life.

Ms. WELCH: I personally think that something in Dr. Freeman wanted to be able to conquer people and take away who they were.

What was that song, mom?

Ms. McGEE: Huh?

Ms. WELCH: Can we sing that one today?

Ms. McGEE and Ms. WELCH: (Singing) You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

Ms. WELCH: She's there, but she's not there.

Mr. H. DULLY: Today Rebecca brings along her husband David. They've been married 19 years, but he's never been here before, never laid eyes on his mother-in-law.

Ms. WELCH: Basically, it's been so painful, I've tried to stay very far away from it for a long time. Kind of like if you leave it alone, it'll go away. But it never goes away.

Mr. H. DULLY: What has changed your mind about hiding from it now?

Ms. WELCH: You. Do you know how many people you're championing? Do you know how many people that can't do what you're doing and you're doing it for them?

Mr. H. DULLY: It does wonders to know that other people have the same pain.

Ms. WELCH: The loss.

Mr. H. DULLY: It's a loss that you can't ever get made up.

After two years of searching, my journey is finally over. I'll never know what I lost in those 10 minutes with Dr. Freeman and his ice pick. By some miracle, it didn't turn me into a zombie, crush my spirit or kill me, but it did affect me deeply. Walter Freeman's operation was supposed to relieve suffering; in my case, it did just the opposite. Ever since my lobotomy, I've felt like a freak, ashamed. But sitting in this room with Rebecca Welch and her mom, I know that my suffering is over. I know my lobotomy didn't touch my soul. For the first time, I feel no shame. I am, at last, at peace.

Ms. McGEE & Ms. WELCH: (Singing) ...please don't take my sunshine away.

Mr. H. DULLY: This is Howard Dully.

Ms. WELCH: That's it.

(Soundbite of McGee laughing; music)

NORRIS: My Lobotomy was produced by Piya Kochhar and Dave Isay at Sound Portraits Productions, with help from Larry Blood and Jack El-Hai. The editor was Gary Covino. Pictures of Howard Dully, a history of lobotomy and other stories of people who underwent Walter Freeman's procedure can be found at our Web site, npr.org.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.