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

At first, a book with the imposing title of The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness (Wiley; 2005) seems an odd choice for me to read, since I have major depression and PSTD.  But I highly recommend this book for anyone suffering from mental illness because it shows you that if you think your treatment is bad now, it can’t be as bad as a transorbital lobotomy (also known as the ice pick lobotomy.)

Award-winning medical journalist Jack El-Hai shows considerable finesse in this biography of Walter Jackson Freeman, MD, the Philadelphia-born doctor who pioneered and championed two forms of lobotomy surgeries — the prefrontal lobotomy (where you drill through the skull to remove brain tissue) and the transorbital lobotomy (too gross to explain.)  Freeman was not a trained or certified surgeon, yet he performed thousands of lobotomies — sometimes in his office, sometimes on children (like the boy pictured here.)

The lobotomy was based on the leucotomy, a brain surgery pioneered by Nobel Prize Portuguese surgeon and politician, Antonio Egas MonitzFreeman thought he could do better, first coming up with the prefrontal lobotomy with neurosurgeon James Watts (known as the Freeman-Watts Standard Procedure) and then the transorbital lobotomy which didn’t need Watts.

This can be a truly horrifying book at times, but those who like Stephen King books will think this is child’s play.  I’d like to write more about the details in this book, but I don’t want to give them away to anyone interested in reading it.  A PBS documentary based on the book came out in 2006 or so, but I haven’t seen it.

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