Many of us would be horrified at some of the methods used to help people with mental problems prior to the advent of drugs in the mid-1950s.

A neurologist named Egas Moniz performed the first brain surgery to treat mental illness in Portugal in 1935. The procedure was called a “leucotomy,” later to be changed to “lobotomy.” It required holes being drilled into the patient’s skull to reach the brain and severe nerve connections.

On January 17, 1946 a newer version of Moniz’ technique, the transorbital or “ice-pick” lobotomy, was performed in Washington, D.C. by a psychiatrist named Walter Freeman.

According to Freeman’s son, Frank, his father felt his less improved version of Moniz’ technique would revolutionize mental health treatments at a time when there were few options. By rendering the patient unconscious through electroshock, and then moving a sharp, ice-pick type instrument around the area above the patient’s eyeball (through the orbit of the eye and into the frontal lobes of the brain) he could change the temperament of a patient, rendering the patient docile.

Freeman’s first patient, housewife Ellen Ionesco, was violently suicidal prior to the surgery. According to her daughter, Angelene Forester, her mother changed her personality to a “peaceful” person almost immediately after the surgery. In her case the treatment was called a success.

In the late 30’s and early ‘40s tens of thousands of patients underwent a lobotomy. The surgery was initially performed on those suffering from schizophrenia and severe depression, but later included those with migraine headaches, on criminals to change their violent behavior, and even children as young as four-years-old.

Howard Dully, a boy of 12, underwent a lobotomy conducted by Dr. Freeman in 1960. Dully, currently 60 and a giant of a man (tall and weighing 350 lbs.), made it his quest to find out exactly why he was made to undergo this treatment.

He researched Freeman’s archived  records at Washington University. According to the notes, Lou Dully, his stepmother, was afraid of the boy and described him as defiant and savage looking (probably because of his size). “He doesn’t react either to love or to punishment,” the notes say of the boy. “He objects to going to bed but then sleeps well. He does a good deal of daydreaming and when asked about it he says ‘I don’t know.’ He turns the room’s lights on when there is broad sunlight outside.” Other doctors she had taken him to said he was a normal boy.

Freeman and Mrs. Dully convinced Howard’s father this was the cure for his problems.

The 10 minutes operation changed Howard’s life. Now he says, “When Lou Dully realized the operation didn’t turn him “into a vegetable, she got me out of the house. I was made a ward of the state.”

“I’ve always felt different,” Dully said. “I wondered if something’s missing from my soul. I have no memory of the operation, and never had the courage to ask my family about it.”

It was 45 years before Dully confronted his father and asked him “why.” His father’s response was, “”I got manipulated, pure and simple,” Rodney Dully says. “I was sold a bill of goods. She sold me and Freeman sold me. And I didn’t like it.”

At least now Dully is able to come to terms with what was done to him and move on.

Looking back at the history of lobotomies, Dr. Elliot Valenstein, who wrote Great and Desperate Cures, a book about the history of lobotomies said, “There were some very unpleasant results, very tragic results and some excellent results and a lot in between.”

In 1949 Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize for his lobotomy procedure. Some say the issuance of this prize legitimized the procedure and stopped any attempts to criticize it.

During his lifetime, Freeman performed over 2,500 lobotomies. His final surgery was in 1967 on a housewife who died from a brain hemorrhage. According to his son, Freeman until his death from cancer in 1972 Freeman spent the rest of his life trying to prove his theory correct.

There is currently an effort underway by the families of Moniz’ patients to persuade the Noble Prize committee to take back the prize, calling it “barbaric.” So far it has not be overturned.


‘My Lobotomy’: Howard Dully’s Journey
Nobel Panel Urged to Rescind Prize for Lobotomies