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

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

Jack El-Hai

ISBN: 978-0-471-23292-6

Jan 2005

368 pages

$34.95

Product not available for purchase

Description

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.

Prologue 1

1 September 1936 7

2 Rittenhouse Square 16

3 The Education of a Lobotomist 33

4 In the Hospital Wards 56

5 A Perfect Partner 83

6 Refining Lobotomy 111

7 The Lines of Battle 134

8 Advance and Retreat 157

9 Waterfall 178

10 Fame 207

11 Road Warrior 236

12 Leaving Home 257

13 Decline 284

14 Ghost 305

Acknowledgments 313

Notes 316

Bibliography 349

Index 355

Walter Freeman believed that "the despair of psychiatric illness demanded a decisive, drastic remedy." And that remedy was lobotomy, "cutting the neural connections in the prefrontal regions of the brain," a practice that these days, writes Jack El-Hai in The Lobotomist, "seems so obviously wrong." Freeman performed nearly 3,500 lobotomies and "aside from the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele . . . ranks as the most scorned physician of the twentieth century." And yet, "many of the era's most important medical figures . . . lent support to Freeman's work." Nor did he intend to cause harm. "I had to recognize," writes El-Hai, "the persuasive evidence that at times he acted in the best interests of his lobotomy patients, given the limitation of the medical environment in which he worked and the perilous nature of scientific innovation." (Washington Post Book World, March 18, 2007)