Cracking skulls

It was in 1936 at the GW Hospital that Dr. Walter J. Freeman attempted to cure mental illness with his secret weapon: an ice pick.

On Monday night PBS aired the documentary, “The Lobotomist,” which chronicles Freeman’s signature surgery- known as the “ice pick” lobotomy – in which he would insert an ice pick into the brain and wiggle it up and down until the orbital plate in the brain would crack, the documentary’s producer John Maggio said in an interview.

This surgery was meant to sever the connection between the frontal lobe and the thalamus – the area of the brain that controls emotions – Maggio said, but it was flawed because the procedure ultimately inflicted permanent damage on otherwise healthy brains.

Freeman’s theory was that emotions were the cause of psychiatric disorders, which is why he tried to remove the region of the brain that deals with emotion.

At the time of Freeman’s arrival in Washington, there were limited resources for mental health patients. Freeman was determined to find a remedy. Maggio said the doctor would work long hours into the night examining brains from patients in the morgue.

Freeman first gained recognition as a doctor and research scientist at the GW Hospital because he was able to assess a patient’s condition with perfect accuracy, GW psychology professor Julia Frank said.

Frank said Freeman’s theory – that functions were localized in certain parts of the brain – was credible, but his surgery was destructive for many of his patients.

“Unfortunately, sometimes the advancement of scientific knowledge comes at the expense of people’s lives,” Frank said.

When temporary remedies became available – such as pharmaceutical drugs – Freeman’s lobotomy procedure became unpopular, Frank said.

In 1954, he left GW and moved to a hospital in California. After an incident in which he administered treatments to a patient without prior approval, his privileges were revoked in 1965. Freeman retired in 1966 and died shortly after in 1972.

“The Lobotomist,” which aired on the PBS program “American Experience,” is partly based on the popular 2005 biography with the same title.

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