Saturday, January 19, 2008

"The Lobotomist" (scheduled to air Jan. 21 at 9 p.m. on PBS stations)

Walter J. Freeman performs a lobotomy in 1949

'Lobotomist' Serves as a Warning

Documentary Shows Damage Done When Medicine Goes Awry

By Sandra G. Boodman Post Staff Writer
January 15, 2008

One of the most horrifying medical treatments of the 20th century was carried out not clandestinely, but with the approval of the medical establishment, the media and the public. Known as the transorbital or "ice pick" lobotomy, the crude and destructive brain-scrambling operation performed on thousands of psychiatric patients between the 1930s and 1960s was touted as a cure for mental illness.

Its prosaic name comes from the instrument initially used to perform it: an ice pick plucked from the kitchen drawer of the procedure's tireless proselytizer, Walter J. Freeman, who pioneered the operation in 1936 while at George Washington University Hospital.

The story of how Freeman sold his procedure to credulous colleagues, assiduously courted the press and convinced desperate families that sticking an ice pick through a patient's upper eye sockets and twirling it like a swizzle stick through brain matter would cure psychosis, depression or troublesome behavior is the ultimate in cautionary medical tales.


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