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1966 1960, Howard Dully became one of the youngest recipients of an “icepick” lobotomy at the age of 12. The psychiatrist who administered the procedure, Dr. Walter Freeman, believed that mental illness was tied to overactive emotions, and that this procedure of cutting the brain dulled the errant feelings, and “cured” the patient.
Howard Dully was brought in for the procedure because his stepmother described him as “unbelievably defiant,” saying among other things: “He objects to going to bed but then sleeps well. He does a good deal of daydreaming and when asked about it he says ‘I don’t know.’ He turns the room’s lights on when there is broad sunlight outside.” After Howard’s stepmother visited with Dr. Freeman, he suggested that “the family should consider the possibility of changing Howard’s personality by means of transorbital lobotomy.”
Dr. Freeman’s transorbital lobotomy procedure was literally an ice pick hammered through the back of each eye socket into the brain then wiggled in a stirring motion, often taking just a few minutes under local anesthesia. Later a specific surgical implement called a leucotome was developed for lobotomies, but after it broke off inside of the skulls of some patients, it was replaced with a stronger tool called the orbitoclast. This surgery severed the prefrontal cortex from the rest of the brain, sometimes removing the undesirable behavior, but often resulting in unwanted effects on a person’s personality and social functioning.
Dr. Freeman brought the lobotomy procedure to the US in 1936, at which time it was administered by drilling a hole through the skull. He “improved” upon it in 1946 with his icepick method. His first patient that year was a housewife, who was reportedly immediately cured of her violent suicidal tendencies. It made the front page of the New York Times the following day, calling it “Surgery of the Soul.”
Dr. Walter Freeman felt that his 10-minute lobotomy was revolutionary medicine, and he prescribed it for personality problems, depression, headaches, and in Howard Dully’s case, misbehavior in children. Newspapers described it as “easier than curing a toothache.” There were some apparent successes over the years as well as some tragic failures, such as a woman who had a lobotomy to cure her headaches in 1950. Her headaches disappeared, but she was left with the mind of a child.
Dr. Walter Freeman’s lobotomies continued until February of 1967, when a housewife named Helen Mortenson died of a brain hemorrhage during the procedure, and his license to practice medicine was revoked. He had lobotomized over 2500 patients in 23 states during the 31 year period. Until his death in 1972, he continued to stay in touch with his patients, driving his so-called “lobotomobile” around the country.
Howard Dully, the boy who underwent the procedure at age twelve, is now a fifty-six year old bus driver in California who has spent his life feeling “like a freak, ashamed.” He is tortured with thoughts of how the operation altered his mind and his soul. His story, called “My Lobotomy,” describes his exploration into the history of Dr. Freeman’s operations, and more specifically, his own. It’s an amazing listen.
Link to NPR story found on BoingBoing