The Lobotomist by Jack El-Hai (John Wiley and Sons), 362 pages, $40.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
The Lobotomist is a gripping, disturbing and well-written portrait of a brilliant man to whom the accolades of the world mattered more than anything else. Yet, as he knew, the public, while dazzled by his performance, couldn't comprehend the damage he was inflicting on his patients. Walter Freeman, an insecure youngster, developed his ego as he built his career as America's cowboy of the new science of psychosurgery. He learned that people were fascinated by the mysteries of the brain and that through lobotomies he could master ill minds.
Freeman began his career as a lobotomist by drilling through skulls and cutting out chunks of brain matter. But when that proved too time-consuming and costly, he discovered that he could cause the required amount of brain damage by hammering an ice pick into the frontal lobes through the top of the eyelid.
The lobotomist became so adept at this gruesome procedure, he could perform dozens in a single day. His subjects were usually women.
Freeman took his grisly show on the road, using seriously disturbed men and women as props. One of the greatest of these performances took place in Toronto, where he carried out a lobotomy on a man who had been mute for three years, supposedly curing him on the operating table. Freeman was the guest of the Ontario government.
He comes across as a tragic figure who couldn't accept that instead of helping the mentally ill, he was increasing their torment. But while his intentions may have been good, his utter recklessness was unforgivable. Fatalities during his treatments were seen not as tragedies but as his personal setbacks.
This is a fabulous book about a horrible time in the history of psychiatry.