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

ISBN: 978-0-471-23292-6
368 pages
January 2005
The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness (0471232920) cover image
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. Drawing on Freeman’s documents and interviews with Freeman's family, Jack El-Hai takes a penetrating look at the life and work of this complex scientific genius.

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. Although many patients did not benefit from the thousands of lobotomies Freeman performed, others believed their lobotomies changed them for the better. Drawing on a rich collection of documents Freeman left behind and interviews with Freeman's family, Jack El-Hai takes a penetrating look into the life of this complex scientific genius and traces the physician's fascinating life and work.

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Prologue.

1. September 1936.

2. Rittenhouse Square.

3. The Education of a Lobotomist.

4. In the Hospital Wards.

5. A Perfect Partner.

6 Refining Lobotomy.

7. The Lines of Battle.

8. Advance and Retreat.

9. Waterfall.

10. Fame.

11. Road Warrior.

12. Leaving Home.

13. Decline.

14. Ghost.

Acknowledgments.

Notes.

Bibliography.

Index.

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JACK EL-HAI is the Executive Vice President of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and a winner of the June Roth Memorial Award for Medical Journalism. A contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post Magazine, American Heritage, and numerous other publications, he lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two daughters.
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"Written with such clarity and engaging detail that a reader has difficulty in putting it down." (The New York Review of Books, August 11, 2005)

“Jack El-Hai has written an absorbing, unsettling and cautionary story of the man who sold the lowly ice pick as the surgical solution to the mental illness of tens of thousands of people…. The author, a respected science journalist, started his research assuming that Freeman was akin to Josef Mengele. He ends this book with a nuanced, haunted view of his subject… With The Lobotomist, El-Hai gives his readers a first-class biography and, without saying so, a tutorial in the sober need for professional humility.” (Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“One of the many virtues of El-Hai's text is the rich detail he provides about Freeman's life and ideas. His readers will thus be able to judge Walter Freeman for themselves and decide whether he is, as El-Hai would have it, "a maverick medical genius" or, as others have concluded, a moral monster.” (Andrew Scull, The Los Angeles Times, April 24, 2005)

“Parts of The Lobotomist can best be read curled in a fetal position, but the reader would be well-advised to make the effort to wade through the relievedly short gruesome passages. That’s because Walter Jackson Freeman is a man worth getting to know, a classic American archetype of genius whose one crucial idea is wielded over and over again.” (Sam Stowe, California Literary Review , April 3, 2005)

“For anyone interested in the science of mind and body, The Lobotomist is surely a reading must.” (Louis C. Martin, Science and Theology News)

“a lively biography of a much maligned and misunderstood practitioner…” (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, August 2005)

“…a well researched account of psychosurgery in the mid 20th century…” (The Guardian, June 11, 2005)

“…fascinating book…an important and disturbing contribution to the history of psychiatry…” (New Statesman, June 17, 2005)

“…meticulously researched account…” (British Medical Journal, 28 May 2005)

According to freelance journalist El-Hai, Walter Freeman (1895-1972) was "the most scorned physician of the twentieth century" except for Nazi Joseph Mengele. In this first biography, he deftly chronicles the rise and fall of Freeman and the procedure he championed. Nearly 70 years ago, Freeman began refining lobotomy, in which a sharp instrument is inserted under the patient's eyelid and into the frontal lobes of the brain; this resulted in nerve damage that seemed to offer remarkable cures in many psychiatric patients. Over time, the operation became widely adopted by the medical community and supported by mental health professionals, families, and many patients themselves. Yet there were always dissenters who attacked lobotomy as useless, cruel, or indeed criminal. Freeman, in turn, spent his entire career performing, promoting, and justifying the operation-even after the development of drugs like chlorpormazine that offered the promise of "chemical" lobotomies. By the time of his death, lobotomy had been gone for more than a decade.  A worthy purchase for any library, especially for medical and large public libraries. --A.J. Wright, Univ. of Alabama Lib., Birmingham (Library Journal, January 15, 2005)

"In The Lobotomist, Jack El-Hai's lively biography, Freeman comes across as a classic American type, a do-gooder and a go-getter with a bit of the huckster thrown in." --William Grimes, The New York Times

"Driven, egotistical, brilliant, and focused, Freeman is as fascinating as the chronicle of twentieth-century psychiatry in which El-Hai sets his story." --Donna Chavez, Booklist

"There are more curious characters than Freeman in the annals of medical history, but few are so curiously American."--Verlyn Klinkenborg, Discover Magazine

"In this first biography, El-Hai deftly chronicles the rise and fall of Freeman and the procedure he championed." --Library Journal

"Good biographers must keep an open mind, to avoid stereotyping and reductionism. Fortunately, El-Hai turns out to be a good biographer."--Steve Weinberg, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"This captivating book chronicles the life of a man who brought showmanship to science and touched the grey matter of a generation of mentally ill patients. Part genius, part maniac, Freeman changed forever the way we understand the link between mind and brain, and though his procedures are discredited, his biological approach to mental illness is ascendant. No history of modern psychiatry is complete without his story."
--Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon

"The moment Walter Freeman's gaze lands on an ice pick in his kitchen drawer, you know you're in for a rollicking ride. This is the biography not just of Walter Freeman but of the lobotomy, a procedure as bizarre and tragic and compelling as Freeman himself. Impressively researched and even-handed, El-Hai's book unravels the man inside the monster. A fascinating read."
--Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

"Vividly written and meticlously reseached, The Lobotomist is a thoughtful and absorbing biography. With skill and grace, Jack El-Hai lays bare the life and obsessions of one of the most controversial figures in American medical history. A terrific read!"
--Dave Isay, award-winning NPR Producer and MacArthur Fellow

"Notorious barely begins to describe the lobotomy, one of the most controversial medical procedures ever known. Jack El-Hai makes its rise understandable at last by bringing to life the complicated, all-too-human doctor who built his career on promoting the lobotomy. This is a lucid and thoughtful account of a remarkable chapter in the history of medicine."
--T. J. Stiles, author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War

"Jack El-Hai has written an absorbing, unsettling and cautionary story of the man who sold the lowly ice pick as the surgical solution to the mental illness of tens of thousands of people…. The author, a respected science journalist, started his research assuming that Freeman was akin to Josef Mengele. He ends this book with a nuanced, haunted view of his subject… With The Lobotomist, El-Hai gives his readers a first-class biography and, without saying so, a tutorial in the sober need for professional humility."-- Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer

"A moving portrait of failed greatness… El-Hai’s book succeeds as both an empathetic, nuanced portrait of one of America’s most complex public figures and as a record of the cultural shifts that have occurred in the treatment of mental illness over the last century." --Publishers Weekly

"Who would predict that a book about a brutal, discredited brain operation could be such fun? But The Lobotomist IS fun — for those of us whose idea of fun is having our most cherished beliefs turned on their heads. Jack El-Hai has done a masterful job of bringing to life a brilliant, slightly cruel, wholly original scientist whose contribution to the treatment of mental illness has too long been misunderstood."-- Robin Marantz Henig, author of Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution

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