One of the benefits of working at a University is that there are a lot of guest lectures that I can attend. One of the downsides of working at a Medical University is that most of these lectures don’t particularity interest me. But, when I got the notice that Jack El-Hai was going to give a talk based on his recent book The Lobotomist, a book about Walter Freeman, the doctor who (largely) developed and popularized the lobotomy, I was immediately interested. I attended the lecture yesterday morning and found it to be incredibly interesting. If this kind of thing interests you, check out his book (or at least the Wikipedia page about Walter Freeman). Part of the lecture showed two videos from the 40s/50s that actually demonstrated both the pre-frontal lobotomy procedure and the transorbital lobotomy (“ice pick” through the eye socket) procedure, maybe not for the squeamish but not really that bad. PBS is making a documentary based on the book that is scheduled to air January 28, 2008. He also mentioned the book My Lobotomy by Howard Dully (also see the NPR interview). Howard, as a 12 year old in the 1960s, received a lobotomy from Dr. Walters.
Ultimately, I think the most interesting part of the interview was learning that the lobotomy did actually help people. Freeman developed the technique to help people who were bound to have to spend the rest of their life in psychological institutions. Apparently, the lobotomy was successful in about a third of patients, allowing them to (after a “relearning” time) return to life, potentially even hold jobs, etc.