The Astounding Dr. Butcher and his Amazing Lobotomobile
This post is definitely not for the squeamish. Digit, with his sensitivity to “cutting in the vicinity of the eye” may well want to bypass this piece, especially the YouTube video.
In a comment on the Fairhaven Hotel posting below, I noted that when I was 17 years of age, I spent an entire night, by myself, in the crumbling hulk of the old Western State Hospital in Steilacoom, Washington (how this came to pass is a story beyond the scope of a blog posting). This facility “prospered” in a time before the advent of pyschiatric medications, and drug injury lawyers. Besides employing such “radical” therapies as insulin-induced seizures (portrayed in the movie A Beautiful Mind) and electroshock therapy, many lobotomies were also performed there.
Enter the Astounding Dr. Butcher in his Amazing “Lobotmobile,” more properly known as Dr. Walter Freeman. The Wikipedia entry about his disturbing occupation will serve to give some insight into the late Dr. Butcher: brain-cutter, soul-killer–
Dr. Walter Jackson Freeman II (November 14, 1895 – May 31, 1972) was a physician, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a graduate of Yale and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and an advocate and very prolific practitioner of psychosurgery, specifically lobotomy….
…Freeman performed 2500 lobotomies in 23 states, but more significantly he popularized the lobotomy as a legitimate form of psychosurgery. A neurologist and psychiatrist 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.
Frustrated by his lack of surgical training and seeking a faster and less invasive way to perform the procedure, Freeman invented the “ice pick” or transorbital lobotomy, which, at first, literally used an ice pick hammered through the back of the eye socket into the brain. Freeman was able to perform these very quickly, outside of an operating theatre, and without the assistance of an actual 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 often 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 surgeons 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…. (source)
Freeman seems to have been as much of a showman as a surgeon, with his absurdly morbid “lobotomobile” and his lobotomy “hucksterism.” But it was a different time, and better-vanished time.
The lobotomy as a “cure-all” fell out of favor with the advent of psychiatric drugs* (although it is still ocassionally peformed, today, in “intractable” cases of OCD and Schizophrenia) after destroying countless lives.
And how did Dr. Butcher end up? This informative, albeit disturbing piece from NPR (which you may listen to, as well) tells us:
After 2,500 operations, Freeman performed his final ice-pick lobotomy on a housewife named Helen Mortenson in February 1967. She died of a brain hemorrhage, and Freeman’s career was finally over. Freeman sold his home and spent the rest of his days traveling the country in a camper, visiting old patients, trying desperately to prove that his procedure had transformed thousands of lives for the better. Freeman died of cancer in 1972.
And now, to conclude, I leave you with this short film (8:18) entitled “The Golden Age of Lobotomy.” Do not watch it if stuff like this disturbs you overly; since most of it is “slow,” it is easy to be “lulled” (which is the intent, I think). There are two brief still-shots of Dr. Freeman performing a lobotomy in the film, including one showing his “two-handed technique”
Personally, I think it’s one of the darkest films I’ve ever watched. Watch it full screen in the dark for full effect.
* Ironically, the advent of “minor tranquilizers” (benzodiazapenes, of which the most well known are Valium and Xanax) was itself a period of abuses and excess, when “mother’s little yellow helper” was heralded as a pyschiatric panacea.