Quacks & Hacks: Walter Freeman and the Lobotomobile



On 12 November 1935, a Portuguese neurologist named Antonio Egas Moniz [below right] became the first individual to perform what would later be known as a lobotomy. Moniz’s work built upon that of the 19th-century Swiss psychiatrist, Gottlieb Burkhardt, who performed a series of operations in 1888 in which he removed sections of the cerebral cortex from six patients under his care at the Préfargier Asylum. Moniz’s early experiments involved drilling holes into patients’ skulls and pouring alcohol into the frontal cortex in order to sever nerves; and coring out regions of the brain with hollow needles.

egas4Moniz’s lobotomy quickly became a popular treatment for various mental conditions, putting an end to the therapeutic nihilism that dominated the psychiatric profession in the Victorian era. Suddenly, doctors believed they could “cure” patients whom they had previously deemed beyond help. Within a decade, the lobotomy became so esteemed that Moniz was awarded a Nobel Prize for his role in developing it.

During this time, Moniz’s procedure was adopted (and adapted) by the American neuropsychiatrist Walter Freeman, who performed the first lobotomy in the United States in 1936. Freeman won acclaim for his technique, and people all over the country began lining up to get their lobotomies, including Rosemary Kennedy [below]—sister to the man who would later become President of the United States. Rosemary was described by members of her family as a rebellious child who was prone to violent mood swings while she was growing up. In November 1941, Rosemary’s father took her to see Freeman, who diagnosed the 23-year-old girl with “agitated depression” and suggested she undergo a lobotomy to correct her erratic behavior. [Interestingly, 80 percent of the lobotomies performed in the US in those early years were carried out on women].

rosemary-kennedy-01-435Freeman performed the operation right then and there on Rosemary, without her mother’s knowledge. Shortly afterwards, it became clear that something had gone terribly wrong. Rosemary could no longer speak, and her mental capacity was equivalent to that of a toddler. Her father institutionalized her, telling people that his daughter was mentally retarded rather than admitting that her condition was due to a failed brain operation. It was only after his death decades later that the truth behind her condition was revealed. Rosemary never did recover her ability to speak coherently, and remained in care till her death in 2005 at the age of 86. She was the first of her siblings to die of natural causes.

The incident did little to damage Freeman’s reputation, who soon began looking for a more efficient way to perform the operation without drilling directly into the skull. As a result, he created the transorbital lobotomy in which a pick-like instrument was forced through the back of the eye sockets to pierce the thin bone that separates the eye sockets from the frontal lobes. This procedure—which later became known as the “ice-pick” lobotomy—could be performed in under ten minutes without anesthetic.



Freeman took to the roads with his ice-pick and hammer, touring hospitals and mental institutions around the country. He performed ice-pick lobotomies for all kinds of conditions, including headaches. Eventually, he began performing the operation in his van—which later became known as “the lobotomobile.” At one point, he undertook 25 lobotomies in a single day. He even performed them on children as young as 4 years old. Years later, one of them spoke of the frightful incident: “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.”

20131026_133743Over the course of four decades, Freeman performed nearly 3,500 lobotomies despite the fact that he had no surgical training. Many of his patients often had to relearn how to eat and use the bathroom. Some never recovered. And, of course, there were fatalities. In 1951, one of his patients died when Freeman suddenly stopped to pose for a photo during the procedure. The surgical instrument slipped and went too far into the patient’s brain. Many others fell victim to a similar fate at the good doctor’s hands.

The lobotomy eventually came under attack from the medical community. By the 1970s, several countries had banned the procedure altogether. Freeman eventually retired the lobotomobile and opened a private practice in California. Contrary to popular belief, he never lost his license to practice medicine.

Today, surgical lobotomies are no longer performed. The rise of drugs like thorazine make it easier to lobotomize patients chemically. In recent years, there have been calls for the Nobel Foundation to rescind Moniz’s prize that he received for developing the lobotomy, which has often been labeled one of the most barbaric mistakes of modern medicine.


Fitzharris_ButcheringArt_JKFSpecial thanks to Paul Koudounaris for bringing this fascinating subject to light for me when I was in Los Angeles this past April.

If you’re interested in the history of surgery, you can now pre-order my book, The Butchering Art. All pre-orders count towards first-week sales once the book is released, and therefore give me a greater chance of securing a place on bestseller lists in October. I would be hugely grateful for your support. If you’re in the US, click HERE. If you’re in the UK, click HERE. Info on further foreign editions to come.



By | 2017-06-14T14:13:01+00:00 June 14th, 2017|Casebooks|13 Comments


  1. GeekAFK June 14, 2017 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    It’s absolutely incredible that there’s a point in medical history where we felt it was perfectly acceptable to shove a metal rod into someone’s head and whip up their brain matter like so many scrambled eggs. Insane.

    • Amanda RN June 15, 2017 at 9:21 am - Reply

      Make you wonder what they will be telling stories about in 75 years

  2. Michael Power June 14, 2017 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Dear Lindsey

    I work at The Freeman Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne.

    I hope it is not named after your Walter Freeman!


    PS I love your stories


  3. RackyNH June 14, 2017 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    I met and got close to a lady back in the early 80’s that had it done to her when she was 14, She was as mellow as a lamb, but said according to her mother that she was a handful, aggressive, never followed rules, sadly she didn’t remember what she was like b4. She did say that she felt that they had stolen part of her soul and wondered if she hadn’t had it done, what kind of a woman would she have become. She was a really super sweet old woman, and I’m proud to have known her for the few years I did.

  4. Connie Rae June 14, 2017 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    Horrible! Guess I really don’t want to read the book!

  5. Amanda RN June 15, 2017 at 9:22 am - Reply

    I feel very uncomfortable and creeped out from reading this. But I will still read you book!!

  6. juliaergane June 15, 2017 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    it was indeed a crime against humanity. The frontal lobes are the center of the self, so to destroy parts of this area and its connections is a travesty of epic proportions. I am a retired medical/psychiatric librarian from one of the large state hospitals which used to do these procedures (I was not there when they went on) and there were still patients with the forehead scars of the earlier operation. This should NEVER be forgotten.

  7. Black Maria July 27, 2017 at 9:03 pm - Reply

    What is shocking for me is a supposed doctor in history of medicine didn’t know about lobotomy. Also, funny first name “Dr”.

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice July 27, 2017 at 9:09 pm - Reply

      You’re a sweetheart, aren’t you?! 😉

      • Black Maria September 27, 2017 at 6:20 pm - Reply

        All my best for those who have the sad need to aggrandize their importance or display signs of a pretense social status. 😉

  8. Robert Turner August 5, 2018 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    I enjoyed the book on Lister. In regards to plastic surgery, you may already be aware of the book by
    Paolo Santoni-Rugiu and P. Sykes on the history of plastic surgery. Paolo was a good friend in the
    periods that my wife and I spent in Pisa, Italy. Robert Turner

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