Dr. Walter J. Freeman ranks as one of the most scorned physicians of the twentieth century, a man widely remembered as a loose cannon who worked beyond the boundaries of accepted medical practice to appease his own personal demons. The myths surrounding Freeman and the operation that made him famouslobotomystill persist today. Lobotomies turn people into human vegetables . . . Freeman lobotomized actress Frances Farmer . . . he carried a set of gold-plated ice picks . . . he lost his license to practice medicine . . . the list goes on.
Yet, many of the most important medical figures during Freeman's time lent their support to his work, effectively pulling lobotomy into the mainstream of medical practice. Many of Freeman's patients, some of them writing and speaking with astonishing clarity, observed how their lobotomies had changed them for the better. So how is it that both physicians and patients supported a procedure that today seems outrageous, even barbaric? And why did Freeman remain a forceful proponent of lobotomy even after most other physicians abandoned it in favor of newer forms of psychiatric treatment?
In The Lobotomist, Jack El-Hai examines these puzzling questions, taking a penetrating look into the life of a complex scientific genius who defies easy description. Drawing on the mountain of documents Freeman left in the wake of his half-century-long careera treasure trove of books, articles, letters, journals, and memoirsas well as interviews with Freeman's family, El-Hai presents a controversial view of this physician as a brilliant but flawed figure who, along with his partner, neurosurgeon James Watts, tried to rescue people once deemed incurable from permanent institutionalization.
Following Freeman during his childhood, his college years, and his growing fascination with the brain, El-Hai explores how the doctor became a rising star in neurology. He traces Freeman's wild journey as he refined and promoted lobotomy, which placed him in the middle of the long-running conflict between the biological and behavioral camps of psychiatry. El-Hai also provides a fascinating look at the evolution of psychiatric medicine through the eras of shock therapy, psychoanalysis, and pharmaceuticals. He reveals how Freeman's shadow looms over a new generation of physicians who practice today's psychiatric surgerywith better technology, a better understanding of the brain, and better ethical guidelines.
Intriguing, provoking, and at times unsettling, The Lobotomist is a unique take on the legacy of Dr. Freeman and his work, presenting a side of the story many have yet to hear.