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

Jack El-Hai
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Book Description

Jan. 17 2005
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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From Publishers Weekly

Set against the backdrop of changing attitudes toward mental illness in the 20th century, El-Hai's scholarly biography of Dr. Walter Freeman is a moving portrait of failed greatness. Born to a distinguished family of physicians, he rose to become one of the most celebrated doctors of his generation. Best known as the doctor responsible for the widespread adoption of lobotomy in America after WWII, he also made signal contributions to the science of medicine through his career-long involvement with George Washington University Medical School and St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Yet, despite his achievements, the procedure he helped develop and tirelessly champion would ultimately become his undoing. As physicians sought other, less drastic means to treat mental illness, Freeman's unorthodox methods, which often included an ice pick and carpenter's hammer, came to seem barbaric. When he died in 1972, the sharply negative view of psychosurgery expressed in books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) had become commonplace; a mere decade later, movies like Frances (1982) would openly portray lobotomy as institutionalized torture. Although the title of El-Hai's biography might suggest otherwise, he eschews such lurid oversimplifications and portrays Freeman in all his human complexity. To this end, he chronicles Freeman's crusade to help millions of asylum patients who might otherwise remain incarcerated indefinitely; his indefatigable postoperative commitment to his patients; and his flamboyant personality and macabre sense of humor in and out of the operating room. 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Though the word lobotomy conjures chilling images of brain-piercing ice picks and vacant-eyed, zombielike patients seemingly sleepwalking through the halls of mental institutions, El-Hai tackles the controversial procedure and its inventor, Walter Freeman, with the dispassionate reserve of a trained journalist. Relying heavily upon Freeman's notes, letters, and journals, El-Hai reconstructs the life of a man whose main mission, aside from personal glory, was to help the helpless. That he selected what many consider little short of brain butchery to do so demonstrates, more than anything, the sort of man Freeman was. Driven, egotistical, brilliant, and focused, Freeman is as fascinating as the chronicle of twentieth-century psychiatry in which El-Hai sets his story. Freeman's procedure inspired many, not always to the good. Soviet as well as American intelligence officials experimented with lobotomy to control political insurgents. Fortunately, it sickened others. Generally, lobotomy was considered to have improved the lives of many but damaged those of many others. Even today, it remains at the center of ongoing controversy between two factions of psychiatry. Donna Chavez
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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ASIDE FROM THE NAZI doctor Josef Mengele, Walter Freeman ranks as the most scorned physician of the twentieth century. Read the first page
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5.0 out of 5 stars What a neat read! Aug. 30 2008
I think this book is one of the most entertaining that I have read in a long time. It is a facinating book written about the birth of one of the most widely known psycosurgery ever created and performed. There is a documentary about this story as well, however the book is wonderful! If you are into medical history, this is most certainly a good choice!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  36 reviews
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Time Wounds All Heels May 15 2009
By Lidgemeister - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The author's attempt to humanize Dr. Walter Freeman does not jibe with the facts he presents. If Freeman truly believed in his heart that lobotomy was justifiable for the wide range of ailments he claimed (including alcoholism, depression) why then did he not seek this miraculous cure for his own wife, who apparently suffered from both as a result of his chronic infidelity?

Equally repellent are Freeman's colleagues in the medical establishment who kept their criticisms to themselves while the carnage continued for decades. Can you imagine (as in the case of Freeman's cohort Dr. Watts) seeing your colleague (who is not even a licensed surgeon) sticking an ice pick into the head of a patient in an office setting and doing no more than ending your partnership? This sounds more like organized crime than medicine.

The author makes much of Freeman's bizarre and obsessive followup of his patients as if it evidenced caring rather than a guilty conscience and a pathological need to be liked by his victims.

It takes an enormous leap of faith to believe Freeman's primary motivation was the good of his patients. Handing a camera to a colleague so he could record Freeman's ability to bore holes into the brains of his patients with both hands is not the mark of devoted physician.

Unfortunately, neither Freeman nor his accomplices were ever called to account in their lifetime. On the contrary, they were honored as distinguished gentleman of the medical profession. The medical establishment as a whole owes a belated apology to the thousands of victims and their families.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and horrifyingly true bit of medical history Aug. 7 2005
By Kindle Customer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Walter Freeman almost singl-handedly created the craze for psychosurgery that was in vogue from the late 1930s until the

mid 1960s. This was a time when "psychosurgery" meant "lobotomy". While lobotomies were invented by Egas Moniz it was Freeman who advanced the research and tirelessly publicised it as the solution to almost all psychological ills.

It would be all too easy for an author to write Freeman off as an uncaring villain of the first order, a Josef Mengele like figure who mutilated the brains of his victims/patients in an attempt to make them conform to societal norms by amputating their personalities. However Jack El Hai presents Freeman as a man desperate to improve the lives of his patients, a self-promoting man, but nonetheless someone who cared. It is this portrayal by El Hai that makes Freeman an even more horrible character. When El Hai describes how Freeman almost obsessively kept in touch with his patients you have to contrast this caring image with that of Freeman performing lobotomies in his office with an ice-pick and then sending the patients home in a taxi. Freeman doesn't come off as a two-dimensional monster, instead he is revealed to be an all to real three-dimensional, deeply and desperately flawed man.

El Hai avoids scrutinizing larger questions such as to what degree lobotomy was used as an instrument of societal control of troublesome individuals, but others have speeculated on that question, instead he provides new englightenment on that issue by examining Walter Freeman and his times.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More Than a Biography March 14 2005
By Marx Swanholm - Published on
I'm not usually a fan of biographies, but I was persuaded to read this one because a friend who's well aware of my preference for fiction recommended it as "just a great story." And that it is. Dr. Walter Freeman, the godfather of the lobotomy, is as intriguing a character as any of the noble but flawed doctor/scientist heroes of classical literature. Driven by ambition and a desire to accomplish great things for humanity, as well as for himself, he scaled the heights of his profession only to be brought low by arrogance and pride.

Jack El-Hai tells Freeman's story with fairness, grace and a novelist's understanding of character and human frailty. I recommend this fine book not only to readers interested in the subject but to anyone who enjoys, as my friend suggested, "a great story."
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mind of a Lobotomist March 8 2005
By Piya Kochhar - Published on
Jack El-Hai takes us into the mind of one of America's most complex medical personalities. The Lobotomist explores the life and work of Dr. Walter Freeman who performed thousands of "ice-pick lobotomies" during the 40s and 50s as a way to treat mental illness. Some saw Freeman as a savior with a miracle cure, others saw him as a cold-blooded egomaniac... Jack El-Hai presents him as a tragic and complex soul by giving us an intimate look into his life and career. A brilliant read...especially because it provides such a vivid snapshot of a terrible chapter in medical history!
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking arrogance Sept. 30 2005
By Larry Nielsen - Published on
As a public health researcher and historian, I found Dr. Freeman's story to be fascinating and horrifying. The book is a fascinating history of psychiatric surgery and of many of the controversies in the development of the science of the mind.

From a researcher's standpoint, it is astounding to read about the highly suspect levels of evidence that Dr. Freeman was willing to accept and pass on to argue for the widespread use of lobotomy. It would be comforting to think that research standards are much more rigorous today, but recent disclosures into the problems with highly marketed pharmaceuticals put the lie to that idea. In fact, in some ways, Dr. Freeman acted more ethically than today's pharmaceutical companies in the sense that, whatever his motives, he was not driven by financial greed. His devotion to his patients, his long road trips to visit them, and his enormous efforts to keep tabs on them are amazing, especially considering that his patient database was boxes of index cards and charts.

Still, Dr. Freeman's arrogance is breathtaking. His willingness to carve up sections of healthy brains is astonishing. And it is clear that he, who was a physician but not a licensed surgeon, took terrible liberties in performing the "ice pick" procedure on his own on the grounds that no general anesthesia was needed.

My only (minor) complaint about the book itself is that the last third seemed overly long. All in all an excellent read.
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