The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
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The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness

3.64 of 5 stars 3.64  ·  rating details  ·  324 ratings  ·  50 reviews
The Lobotomist explores one of the darkest chapters of American medicine: the desperate attempt to treat the hundreds of thousands of psychiatric patients in need of help during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Into this crisis stepped Walter Freeman, M.D., who saw a solution in lobotomy, a brain operation intended to reduce the severity of psychotic symptoms....more
Paperback, 362 pages
Published February 9th 2007 by John Wiley & Sons (first published January 1st 2005)
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William Herschel
A fellow named Freeman said: "I've
A sharp little knife that I drive;
If you want to be dead
I'll bore holes in your head
And then you won't know you're alive."

- allen kringel

When one rates a biography are they in part rating the biographee's life? Walter Freeman, the pioneer of lobotomy in America, has that showman type personality that does well to keep one's interest. But his personality of unconventionality and showmanship makes more for a nauseating mix when his instrument of choice is the icep...more
TBML
After reading Howard Dully's MY LOBOTOMY: A MEMOIR, I had to read THE LOBOTOMIST. The subtitle--A maverick medical genius and his tragic quest to rid the world of mental illness--speaks volumes. There is no doubt that Walter Freeman was a genius, and a maverick. He came from a family whose menfolk had been physicians back to his great grandfather. If there was one thing he possesed in abundance in was self confidence and the unshakable conviction of his own greatness.

El-Hai does a remarkablly ev...more
Stephanie
Fascinating biography of Freeman and his campaign to make lobotomy a common practice for the cure of mental illness, especially mood disorders.

Reading this, it's kind of horrifying to think that Freeman's transorbital lobotomy was such a common practice - especially given that he didn't always work in aseptic conditions, and didn't hesitate to lobotomise young children, or to lobotomise some patients two or three times. Especially given that there was so little actual evidence that it did anythi...more
Modern Hermeneut
"There is a certain satisfaction in writing 'finis' to a case when the patient dies. That satisfaction is doubled when the cause of death is clearly stated, and redoubled when an autopsy is performed and the specimen is available for study."

These chilling words belong to lobotomy pioneer Walter Freeman. One might think that a hagiography of such a man would frustrate even the most callous apologist. But author Jack El-Hai lowers himself to the occasion. In keeping with his subject, El-Hai loboto...more
Molly
(Read for the Loft's 2012-2013 Mentorship Program)

Discussing this book with a group helped smooth out my thoughts about this book. At first, I stomped around, telling my husband it was exhausting to read, with its jumps in time and its lack of variation. There was no dialogue! No interniality! (I was making up words!) The characters weren't characters but lists of facts; it may as well be a sequence of bullet points.

But the group was wise, as it tends to be. One pointed out how a group of medica...more
Sandra
For a journalist, this guy has the worst organizational writing skills I've ever seen. Am 5 chapters in and still haven't even gotten to the first lobotomy.
Nicole
This is a book of nonfiction detailing the life of Dr Freeman, an American neurologist/psychiatrist from the early 1900's who researched, developed, performed, and advocated the use of lobotomy as a medical treatment for various psychiatric ailments. The very word "lobotomy" in present day has negative connotations but this work does an excellent job of detailing the medical mileu by which it developed. In the early 1900's there were little to no pharmacologic methods to treat psychiatric diseas...more
Ashley
Walter Freeman is a polarizing character. He popularized and promoted the more traditional lobotomy, developed a new one (the ice pick lobotomy), and performed them on thousands of the mentally impaired (and sometimes not so impaired) throughout a relatively short time span. But the man did it to try and alleviate their suffering. He felt that if most of his patients were able to be released from their asylums, then he did good work.

I was particularly aggressive towards Freeman’s ideas, especial...more
Lisa
Heavily anecdotal history of lobotomy in America. Fascinating read, though arguably a little morbid. The book was very well researched and littered with fun facts about the US's preeminent lobotomist--such as the fact that he carried a *ahem* penis ring *ahem* monogrammed after being liberated from a patient, on a chain around his neck. You just don't get facts like that from a textbook.

I did not know that thousands of lobotomies continued to be performed in the US as late as the 1960's. While t...more
Becky Weaver
I like books that debunk "what everybody knows." This is one of those books. Walter Freeman emerged as a fascinating person. He was no saint in his personal life, with an extra helping of the mid-20th century American strategy of focusing intently on work, excercise, and travel in order to forestall any dangerous introspection that might undermine his bluff self-confidence. He was impatient to get out there and start helping people, with his brand-new tool that seemed to work. It was touching ho...more
Brittany Gratreak
The Good: The book has moments of shining light on the tragic depths of Walter J. Freeman, but also has more light, fun moments that add to its strength overall. Freeman may not be the most likable fellow given his misplaced determination and heavy ego, but some excerpts really build his character. The book does not make him out to be some evil genius that destroyed people, which was what I was expecting at first. It would be so easy to do that, given the circumstances. El-Hai did a fantastic jo...more
Jeff
This was an excellent read. Walter Freeman was the kind of guy that makes for an interesting biography - really smart, a few screws loose, funny, a showman, and convinced of his righteousness.

I think most of us have the idea in our head that lobotomy was strictly done to turn violent people into manageable vegetables, but the truth is more complex. Many people, it seems, ended up with a better life after getting one of the various lobotomy procedures done. Some ended up worse, and a few ended up...more
Jennie
Probably really more of a 3.5, but I'm just not enthusiastic enough about it to round up to a 4. I found this book informative and easy to read, and the topic was unique enough to hold my interest, but ultimately I think that this was the story of an ordinary person--one who was self-centered, privileged, and just smart enough to be dangerous--who, through a combination of hard work, ego, and pursuit of the American dream, managed to shit all over medical ethics for years. And unfortunately, I t...more
Emily
This book is a biography of Dr. Walter Freeman, the psychiatrist turned "psychosurgeon" who popularized the use in the US of the lobotomy as a treatment of last resort for patients with severe mental illness. It's a disturbing tale. While Freeman seemed to genuinely believe that he was helping people, even following up on his patients decades later, his own accounts said that fewer than half of the surgery subjects were improved. Many suffered negative side effects such as seizures and loss of c...more
Coley Myers
Am I the only one with a morbid fascination about early mental health (or lack there of) and its methods? Wanting to get into the mind of these so called doctors and learn a little about the history of mental health, I found this gem embedded in the many folds of Amazon's mental health section.
The early 1900's were such a dark time for mental health without much knowledge and understanding of the brain... You better not fall into a depression or you might have been a science project for Dr. Wa...more
Becky Loader
Walter Freeman was convinced that mental illness was caused by physical issues in the brain. He became a proponent of prefrontal lobotomies as a means to "cure" extreme cases. As Freeman worked further through his career, he developed the transorbital lobotomy as an inexpensive, fast way to provide "relief" to the many thousands of people institutionalized in mental hospitals. To say that he was controversial would be an understatement. This biography describes his life and lets the reader see h...more
Alyssa
Fascinating in every way possible, both as a biography of Walter Freeman and a history of lobotomy and leucotomy, specifically within the US. Reading the book and the information presented I can totally see how people at the time could feel that lobotomy might not be that bad as a last resort.

If you have any interest in the slightly grotesque yet engrossing aspect of the medical profession (ie if you liked Mary Roach's Stiff), definitely give this book a whirl.
Rhonda
I found this a fascinating biography, well-written and well-researched. Who and why was this ever thought to be effective? How did such a bizarre procedure become "acceptable." Mostly--what kind of person would perform a lobotomy in the first place? This book was an easy-to-read insight into the vanity and intelligence of one man as well as the state of mental health care (or 'non-care') in the 1930s and as recently as the 1960s.
laaaaames
Incredibly interesting and chilling, but was sometimes frustrating in how the book would introduce information and all but abandon it. There was so much barely covered or only alluded to within Freeman's personal life I really wanted more of - in some ways it barely scratched the surface. In some ways functioned better as a journey through mental health treatment in this period of history than an actual biography.

(read: 81)
Becki
This was a very interesting read about the life of Walter Freeman and his work with Transorbital Lobotomy. He was meticulous in his follow up with patients, however, he never saw his work as a bad thing...only a great cure.

This book at times got you angry and confused,m however, it also let you see a bit into his mind and thinking.

If you like Medical reads, then I would highly recommend this book.
Heidi Iwashita
Lots of interesting tidbits here about the man who popularized the lobotomy in the U.S. I've been fascinated by this topic for a few weeks now, and this book didn't disappoint. Most sources take a very negative view of Dr. Freeman, but this biography was more sympathetic. I found I admired some of his good qualities while still reviling the destructiveness of the procedure that brought him fame.
Jennifer
Feb 28, 2008 Jennifer marked it as to-read
This was made into a documentary on PBS. People were so desperate to believe something could help the mentally ill (before most medications were available) they allowed this guy to stick an ice pick behind their or their relative's eye and twirl it around. Loads of people died. He performed this "surgery" on one of the Kennedy daughters and she became a docile retard as a result.
Angie
For some reason I was reading two books about lobotomy at the same time... go figure!! If you want all of the details of Walter Freedman's life, then read this book... if you just want a brief history of Freedman, and would rather read about a patient's experience, read "My Lobotomy" by Howard Dully. Dully uses this book as a reference to talk about Freedman's life.
Leonora
One of the best non-fiction books I have ever read: endlessly fascinating, nearly flawlessly written, and incredibly objective.

Read in conjunction with "My Lobotomy" by Howard Dully. Dully was Freeman's youngest lobotomy patient, undergoing the procedure when he was just 12 years old.

I would recommend it to everyone who reads non-fiction.
r. lee wicks
What a fantastic and interesting account of a man's life. The one thing that I would say that caused me to rate this three stars instead of five is that the book was quite long. While I enjoy reading all of the history that was contained herein, the length of some of the stories caused me to occasionally lose interest.
Sarah
A biography of both the man and the procedure he popularised, very interesting albeit with a couple of descriptions of procedures that will make you wince! It makes me wonder what, in 50 years time, will we consider to be the horrific terribly bad ideas in medicine - the ones we consider perfectly reasonable right now.
Patti
A very detailed account of a guy who would have just been someone's kind of weird uncle if he hadn't made it a habit to stick ice picks in people's eyes.

The lobotomies don't even start until page 100. Rosemary Kennedy isn't mentioned until page 175 and I'm still not sure if lobotomies work or not.



John
3 1/2 stars. An affable, arguably brilliant doctor with the best intentions fails to see the damage and shortcomings that his pioneering procedures have on many patients. Fitfully too encyclopedic and scientific for its own good, but much of Walter Freeman's biography is tragically fascinating and well-written.
James Hansen
Outstanding book! Wonderful historical account of a fascinating era of psychiatric history - I couldn't put it down!
Rai
well, the NPR interview with the author didn't quite live up to his book. An interesting subject, but lacking in that he didn't get that into the psyche of his author, nor on why the procedure of lobotomy was and is controversial both medically and socially.
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300083
Jack El-Hai is a widely-published journalist who covers history, medicine, and science, and the author of the acclaimed book The Lobotomist. He is the winner of the June Roth Memorial Award for Medical Journalism, as well as fellowships and grants from the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the Center for Arts Criticism. He lives in Minneapolis.
More about Jack El-Hai...
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