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Two beliefs led Freeman into these explorations of unconventional treatments. The first was his conviction that many psychiatric illnesses were organic in origin and thus medical therapy for the brain would ultimately cure more mental diseases than any amount of psychoanalysis or talk therapy. [...]

Also pressing on Freeman's mind, though, was the second urgent belief: that he was witnessing a catastrophe in progress..., a terrible squandering of human potential, and that there must be something, however untried and yet unthought of, that he could do as a neurologist to help halt it.
    -Jack El-Hai, The Lobotomist

Jack El-Hai offers a fascinating and thorough, though perhaps overly thorough, account of the life of Dr. Walter J. Freeman (1895-1972), who more than any other man was responsible for the development and popularity of lobotomy as a treatment for certain brain disorders in the middle part of the 20th Century. He personally performed thousands, traveled widely to demonstrate techniques that he pioneered, worked to secure a Nobel Prize for Egas Moniz, the Portuguese doctor from whom he adopted the idea, and wrote and lectured extensively in support of the procedure. Though egotistical and driven in the manner of many such innovators and proselytizers, he was also good-humored enough to withstand the attacks of Freudians and surgeons who objected either to the theory or the actual implementation of his methods and though he was certainly seeking personal fame he also seems to have genuinely believed, with apparent good cause, that he was improving the lives of patients with mental disorders that so severely affected their lives that even radical intervention was worthwhile.

Thanks to various horror movies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, urban legends about Frances Farmer, and other sorts of demonization, lobotomy is misremembered today as some sort of barbaric attempt to control people for political or social reasons. Mr. El-Hai's book effectively rubbishes that canard and does much to restore the reputation of its most famous/infamous practitioner, without whitewashing the man's personal flaws or his sometimes overzealous pursuit of psychosurgery, even after drugs had come along that could often serve as safer replacements. And if Dr. Freeman is ultimately such a marginal figure that one can wonder whether a long magazine piece mightn't have adequately covered his career, there is nonetheless a sufficiently compelling subtext about the wars between organicists (medical doctors) and psychoanalysts to sustain interest to the end, an end in which it seems fair to say that Dr. Freeman gets the last laugh:
Although fewer than 300 brain operations are now conducted annually worldwide to treat psychiatric disorders, the number is certain to rise, perhaps dramatically. These new procedures are not lobotomies; they most often use lasers or radiation to produce tiny lesions in narrowly targeted regions of the brain, especially the regions most closely implicated in the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder. [...] [Dr.] Freeman, were he alive, would nod knowingly.
Knowingly and with some deserved sense of vindication.


Grade: (B-)


Jack El-Hai Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jack El-Hai
    -BOOK SITE: The Lobotomist
    -ESSAY: MINNEAPOLIS’S R.T. RYBAK ’78 (Jack El-Hai, Winter 2003, Boston College Magazine)
    -ESSAY: One Smart Bookie: He can't tell right from wrong (Jack El-Hai, May 2001, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Where No Business is Good Business (Jack El-Hai, October 2000, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Aging in America (Jack El-hai, Carleton Voice)
    -ESSAY: Gorillas in Our Midst (Jack El-Hai, Carleton Voice)
    -ESSAY: Incident at Lyman: A deadly canoe accident disrupted a peaceful spring evening long ago. (Jack El-Hai, Carleton Voice)
    -ESSAY: Peter Ostroushko: Old World Sound New World Music (Jack El-Hai, Mandozine)
    -ESSAY: Good Business: Conversations with six alumni who use their entrepreneurship to support uncommon enterprises for the profitable common good (Jack El-Hai, Macalester Today)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Jack El-Hai (Diane Rehm, 4/18/05)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: The man behind the lobotomy (Euan Kerr, February 7, 2005, Minnesota Public Radio)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Tales of a Medical Renegade: 'The Lobotomist' (Terry Gross, March 10, 2005, Fresh Air from WHYY)
    -INTERVIEW: Jack El-Hai, Biographer of Walter Freeman (Robyn Williams, 16/06/2005, In Conversation)
    -INTERVIEW: Author Interview: Jack El-Hai (Book Buffet)
    -PODCAST: Megan McArdle on the Oedipus Trap: When physician Walter Freeman died in 1972, he still believed that lobotomies were the best treatment for mental illness. A pioneer in the method, he was a deeply confident and charismatic man who eagerly spread the technique in America, long after the rise of alternative treatments that were less destructive. Listen as journalist Megan McArdle and EconTalk's Russ Roberts discuss what McArdle calls the "Oedipus Trap": mistakes that no one can live with, even if they were innocently made, and how admitting such mistakes to ourselves is nearly impossible. (Russ Roberts, 3/20/23, EconTalk)
    -ESSAY: What the world can learn from a lobotomy surgeon’s horrible mistake (Megan McArdle, February 14, 2023, Washington Post)
    -ARTICLE: Lobotomy Back in Spotlight After 30 Years (LINDA A. JOHNSON, 7/13/05, Associated Press)
    -ESSAY: Magical Mystery Cure: What would you do if a lobotomy was your only hope for happiness? Today the procedure is called psychosurgery and it continues to be prescribed to treat mental illness, though many psychiatrists argue the mentally ill need it like a hole in the head (Danielle Egan, This Magazine)
    -ARCHIVES: "jack el-hai" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist by Jack El-Hai (William Grimes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Dylan Evans, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Sherwin B. Nuland, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Louis C. Martin , Science & Theology News)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Verlyn Klinkenborg, Discover)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Charles Devilbiss, Washington Examiner)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Barron Lerner, New England Journal of Medicine)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Steve Weinberg, The Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Cheryl L. Reed, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Brenda Maddox, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Popular Science)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (George Slade, MN Artists)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Sam Stowe, California Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Lobotomist (Brian Miller, Seattle Weekly)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: “The Miracle Cure.” A Brief History of Lobotomies: Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman on Early Psychosurgery—and Its Impact on the Kennedys and Tennessee Williams (Jeffrey A. Lieberman, February 21, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Should You Have a Lobotomy?: Here's everything you never wanted to know about the brain surgery from the 1940s (Stephen Johnson, 3/22/23, Lifehacker)
-AUDIO: 'My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey (All Things Considered, November 16, 2005, NPR)