Saturday, November 19, 2022

Doctor Ice Pick, by Claire Prentice (author), Chanté McCormick (narrator)

Amazon Original Stories, May 2022

Dr. Walter Freeman was a neurologist, and  the man who invented the transorbital lobotomy, performed with surgical picks and a medical hammer.  The picks looked like ice picks.

It's not the equipment used, of course, that makes the procedure horrific.

This is a short audiobook, about two hours, but it packs a punch. Freeman began actively, even aggressively, promoting and performing lobotomies in the 1950s in the overcrowded, underfunded mental hospitals of West Virginia. 

The hospitals were seriously underfunded, and West Virginia was a poor state, and conditions in the hospitals were horrific. Psychiatric drugs weren't available yet, or rather, were just in the early stages of being developed. But even once they became available, they take time to work.

The transorbital lobotomy was a ten-minute procedure that had immediate efflect.

Initially, the lobotomies were being performed mostly on violent, difficult to control patients, and many of them were "improved" by the lobotomy. About one third, and that's Freeman's own estimate, not an independent estimate, were well enough to go home.

While some did well when they returned home after lobotomies, others became passive, lost all initiative, had difficulty with simple tasks. Some became unable to even take basic care of themselves--needing to be fed, cleaned, and helped to toilet.

Some died of the procedure, because the smallest slip could cause far more brain damage than intended.

It was disproportionately performed on women, minorities, and the poor. The list of conditions for which Freeman eagerly recommended it kept growing, and minor anxiety in women, or teenage defiance of parents, were included.

Freeman was a showman, who liked to be watched performing, courted the media, and never acknowledged the damage his beloved procedure did to so many of his patients. Opposition to lobotomy grew in the medical community throughout the 1950s, as the consequences became clear and the first effective psychiatric drugs became available, but Freeman kept promoting lobotomy, and performing lobotomies, until 1967, when a long-term patient on whom he had performed two previous lobotomies, died following a third.

This is truly a horrifying story. I'm old enough that I'd heard a good bit of this before, but this book is a fuller story than what I knew, and quite shocking.


I bought this audiobook.

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