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Freeman was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into an affluent and distinguished family. His father was a successful doctor and his grandfather, William Keen, was President of the American Medical Association. He graduated from Yale and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He was president of the American Association of Neuropathologists 1944-1945, president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology 1946-1947, and a member of the American Psychiatric Association.
Freeman performed nearly 3500 lobotomies in 23 states, mostly based on scanty and flimsy evidence for its scientific basis, but more significantly he popularized the lobotomy. A neurologist without surgical training, he initially worked with several surgeons, including James W. Watts. In 1936, he and Watts became the first American doctors to perform prefrontal lobotomy (by craniotomy in an operating room).
Seeking a faster and less invasive way to perform the procedure, Freeman adopted Amarro Fiamberti's transorbital lobotomy and began to perfect it, initially by using ice picks hammered into each frontal lobe through the back of each eye socket ("ice pick lobotomy"). Freeman was able to perform these very quickly, outside of an operating room, and without a surgeon. For his first transorbital lobotomies, Freeman used an actual icepick from his kitchen. Later, he utilized an instrument created specifically for the operation called a leucotome. In 1948 Freeman developed a new technique which involved wrenching the leucotome in an upstroke after the initial insertion. This procedure placed great strain on the instrument and in one case resulted in the leucotome breaking off in the patient's skull. As a result, Freeman designed a new, stronger instrument, the orbitoclast.
Freeman embarked on a national campaign in his van which he called his "lobotomobile" to demonstrate the procedure to doctors working at state-run institutions; Freeman would show off by icepicking both of a patient's eyesockets at one time - one with each hand. According to some, institutional care was hampered by lack of effective treatments and extreme overcrowding, and Freeman saw the transorbital lobotomy as an expedient tool to get large populations out of treatment and back into private life.
The “ice pick lobotomy” was, according to Ole Enersen, performed by Freeman “with a recklessness bordering on lunacy, touring the country like a travelling evangelist. In most cases,” Enersen continued, “this procedure was nothing more than a gross and unwarranted mutilation carried out by a self righteous zealot.”
Freeman's most notorious operation was on the ill-fated Rosemary Kennedy, who was permanently incapacitated by a lobotomy at age 23. Another of his patients, Howard Dully, has now written a book called My Lobotomy about his experiences with Freeman and his long recovery after the surgery he underwent at 12 years old.
With the advent of antipsychotic drugs, notably Thorazine, in the mid-1950s, lobotomy fell out of favor as a treatment, and Freeman saw his reputation crumble quickly. His license to practice medicine was revoked when a patient he was lobotomizing died. He continued to drive cross country in his "lobotomobile" to visit his former patients until his death from cancer in 1972.
- Athens Lunatic Asylum (Freeman's employer during some of his early surgeries)
- American Experience | The Lobotomist | PBS
- http://student.bmj.com/issues/06/01/education/12.php S Abimbola, The white cut: Egas Moniz, lobotomy, and the Nobel prize, British Medical Journal
- My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey
- Enersen OD. Antonio Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz.
- Dully, Howard (March 6, 2008). My Lobotomy, Ebury Press.
- El-Hai, Jack (2005), The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness; Wiley.
- The Lobotomist, authoritative biography of Freeman by Jack El-Hai
- 'The Lobotomist', PBS, American Experience series, program aired 2008-01-21
- New England Journal of Medicine article
- Article referencing Jack El-Hai's initial Washington Post feature on Freeman
- A Brief History of Lobotomy
- 'My Lobotomy' documentary program from SoundPortraits.org. "
- "Shedding Light on Shadowland"--in-depth essay debunking the lobotomy allegation about Frances Farmer, including a wealth of information from Freeman's own private correspondence
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