Imagine having a shiny ice pick pushed into your eye and up into your brain, waved around for a couple of minutes, and then taken out. This is exactly what happened to the patients of Dr. Walter Freeman, the man who led one of the darkest periods in the history of psychiatry in our country.
In the early 1930s, Dr. Freeman thought that he was destined to do great things in medicine. As the grandson of Dr. William Freeman, one of America’s pioneering surgeons and the first to do brain surgery on a live patient, Walter felt that he too was called to do something great for medicine. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, he continued his training in neurology and soon landed at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Walter was troubled by the pain and distress of his patients, especially those who were mentally ill.
As he visited various asylums and mental institutions, he was dismayed by the living conditions of the mentally ill. Dr. Freeman felt “ashamed and disgusted” that people were even allowed to live in such a way and decided that he wanted to do something to improve their situation.
One day, while pouring through various library books, he stumbled upon a procedure pioneered by Eguz Muniz in the 1930s known as “leucotomy.” One year later, alongside his neurosurgeon partner Dr. James Watts, Dr. Freeman performed the first prefrontal lobotomy on a housewife suffering from severe depression. In the documentary, the patient’s daughter spoke about how the procedure changed her mother for the better. Though she was never completely normal, the patient was never as depressed or anxious as she was before the procedure, and for this the daughter would be forever grateful to Dr. Freeman.
The story goes on, and within a few years Dr. Freeman performed a new type of procedure, the first transorbital lobotomy, on his patients. First he would electroshock his patients, causing them to lose consciousness for several minutes. During this time, he would take ice picks and push them through the eye and up into the orbital roof. Finally, he would take a hammer, hit the ice pick so that it broke through the brain, and then remodel the frontal lobe by moving the pick around. The entire procedure took only a few minutes, and after every procedure, Dr. Freeman would take a picture of the patient. His neurosurgeon and partner Dr. Watts was so appalled that Dr. Freeman was performing such invasive surgeries — especially because he didn’t have the necessary training as a surgeon — that he left Freeman’s practice.
Undeterred, Freeman continued his lobotomy procedures despite the many critical comments he was receiving from the medical community. Back then, insulting a physician publicly was unacceptable, allowing physicians to act without repercussions The medical community didn’t agree with what Dr. Freeman was doing, and yet they didn’t try to stop him. Dr. Freeman felt that he was changing lives, and the side effects — including patients relapsing, losing their higher intellect or becoming totally dependent beings — were far better for the patients than living with a mental illness. He even performed procedures on children under 18, his youngest being only four years of age. Now an adult, one of his former patients talks about the experience and how he has lived his entire life feeling incompletely, as if “something is missing.”
Without giving too many details away — for this is a must-see documentary, especially for those of you in the health care field — the movie goes on to tell various stories from the point of view of family members, staff, and even a few patients. Though some of Dr. Freeman’s patients believe he was genuinely trying to make a difference and just wanted to do something beneficial for his patients, it’s clear that his obsession with doing something great for medicine went too far.
The 1950s were truly a dark age for medicine, and it wasn’t until 1967, when Dr. Freeman’s final patient suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, that he was stripped of his license and asked to leave the field of medicine. Walter Freeman gained his 20 years of glory and fame in the eye of the public, but ultimately went down in the books as a medical “monster,” leaving the rest of us wondering if something like this could ever happen again.