[Paleopsych] NPR: 'My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey

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'My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey
[Thanks to Sarah for this. Best to click on the URL.]

On Jan. 17, 1946, a psychiatrist named Walter Freeman launched a radical new 
era in the treatment of mental illness in this country. On that day, he 
performed the first-ever transorbital or "ice-pick" lobotomy in his Washington, 
D.C., office. Freeman believed that mental illness was related to overactive 
emotions, and that by cutting the brain he cut away these feelings.

Freeman, equal parts physician and showman, became a barnstorming
crusader for the procedure. Before his death in 1972, he performed
transorbital lobotomies on some 2,500 patients in 23 states.

One of Freeman's youngest patients is today a 56-year-old bus driver
living in California. Over the past two years, Howard Dully has
embarked on a quest to discover the story behind the procedure he
received as a 12-year-old boy.

In researching his story, Dully visited Freeman's son; relatives of
patients who underwent the procedure; the archive where Freeman's
papers are stored; and Dully's own father, to whom he had never spoken
about the lobotomy.

"If you saw me you'd never know I'd had a lobotomy," Dully says. "The
only thing you'd notice is that I'm very tall and weigh about 350
pounds. But I've always felt different -- 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. So two years ago I set out on a
journey to learn everything I could about my lobotomy."

Neurologist Egas Moniz performed the first brain surgery to treat
mental illness in Portugal in 1935. The procedure, which Moniz called
a "leucotomy," involved drilling holes in the patient's skull to get
to the brain. Freeman brought the operation to America and gave it a
new name: the lobotomy. Freeman and his surgeon partner James Watts
performed the first American lobotomy in 1936. Freeman and his
lobotomy became famous. But soon he grew impatient.

"My father decided that there must be a better way," says Freeman's
son, Frank. Walter Freeman set out to create a new procedure, one that
didn't require drilling holes in the head: the transorbital lobotomy.
Freeman was convinced that his 10-minute lobotomy was destined to
revolutionize medicine. He spent the rest of his life trying to prove
his point.

As those who watched the procedure described it, a patient would be
rendered unconscious by electroshock. Freeman would then take a sharp
ice pick-like instrument, insert it above the patient's eyeball
through the orbit of the eye, into the frontal lobes of the brain,
moving the instrument back and forth. Then he would do the same thing
on the other side of the face.

Freeman performed the procedure for the first time in his Washington,
D.C., office on Jan. 17, 1946. His patient was a housewife named Ellen
Ionesco. Her daughter, Angelene Forester, was there that day.

"She was absolutely violently suicidal beforehand," Forester says of
her mother. "After the transorbital lobotomy there was nothing. It
stopped immediately. It was just peace. I don't know how to explain it
to you, it was like turning a coin over. That quick. So whatever he
did, he did something right."

Ellen Ionesco, now 88 years old, lives in a nursing home in Virginia.
"He was just a great man. That's all I can say," she says. But Ionesco
says she remembers little about Freeman, including what he looked

By 1949, the transorbital lobotomy had caught on. Freeman lobotomized
patients in mental institutions across the country.

"There were some very unpleasant results, very tragic results and some
excellent results and a lot in between," says Dr. Elliot Valenstein,
who wrote Great and Desperate Cures, a book about the history of

Valenstein says the procedure "spread like wildfire" because
alternative treatments were scarce. "There was no other way of
treating people who were seriously mentally ill," he says. "The drugs
weren't introduced until the mid-1950s in the United States, and
psychiatric institutions were overcrowded... [Patients and their
families] were willing to try almost anything."

By 1950, Freeman's lobotomy revolution was in full swing. Newspapers
described it as easier than curing a toothache. Freeman was a showman
and liked to shock his audience of doctors and nurses by performing
two-handed lobotomies: hammering ice picks into both eyes at once. In
1952, he performed 228 lobotomies in a two-week period in West
Virginia alone. (He lobotomized 25 women in a single day.) He decided
that his 10-minute lobotomy could be used on others besides the
incurably mentally ill.

Anna Ruth Channels suffered from severe headaches and was referred to
Freeman in 1950. He prescribed a transorbital lobotomy. The procedure
cured Channels of her headaches, but it left her with the mind of a
child, according to her daughter, Carol Noelle. "Just as Freeman
promised, she didn't worry," Noelle says. "She had no concept of
social graces. If someone was having a gathering at their home, she
had no problem with going in to their house and taking a seat, too."

Howard Dully's mother died of cancer when he was 5. His father
remarried and, Dully says, "My stepmother hated me. I never understood
why, but it was clear she'd do anything to get rid of me."

A search of Dully's records among Freeman's files archived at George
Washington University turned up clues about why Freeman lobotomized

According to Freeman's notes, Lou Dully said she feared her stepson,
whom she described as defiant and savage looking. "He doesn't react
either to love or to punishment," the notes say of Howard Dully. "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."

On Nov. 30, 1960, Freeman wrote: "Mrs. Dully came in for a talk about
Howard. Things have gotten much worse and she can barely endure it. I
explained to Mrs. Dully that the family should consider the
possibility of changing Howard's personality by means of transorbital
lobotomy. Mrs. Dully said it was up to her husband, that I would have
to talk with him and make it stick."

Then on Dec. 3, 1960: "Mr. and Mrs. Dully have apparently decided to
have Howard operated on. I suggested [they] not tell Howard anything
about it."

In an entry dated Jan. 4, 1961, two and a half weeks after the boy's
lobotomy, Freeman wrote: "I told Howard what I'd done to him... and he
took it without a quiver. He sits quietly, grinning most of the time
and offering nothing."

Dully says that 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.

"It took me years to get my life together. Through it all I've been
haunted by questions: 'Did I do something to deserve this?, Can I ever
be normal?', and most of all, 'Why did my dad let this happen?'"

For more than 40 years, Howard Dully had never discussed the lobotomy
with his father. In late 2004, Rodney Dully agreed to talk with his
son about the operation.

"So how did you find Dr. Freeman?" Howard Dully asks.

"I didn't," Rodney Dully replies, adding that Lou Dully was the one.
"She took you... I think she tried some other doctors who said,
'...there's nothing wrong here. He's a normal boy.' It was the
stepmother problem."

Why would a father let this happen to his son?

"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."

The meeting proves cathartic for Howard Dully. "Although he refuses to
take any responsibility, just sitting here with my dad and getting to
ask him about my lobotomy is the happiest moment of my life," Howard
Dully says.

Rebecca Welch's mother Anita was lobotomized by Freeman for postpartum
depression in 1953. After spending most of her life in mental
institutions, Anita McGee now lives in a nursing home in Birmingham,
Ala. Rebecca visits her every week. She believes Walter Freeman's
lobotomy destroyed her mother's life.

"I personally think that something in Dr. Freeman wanted to be able to
conquer people and take away who they were," Welch says.

At a meeting in the nursing home, Welch and Howard Dully find common
ground in their experiences with Freeman. "It does wonders to know
that other people have the same pain," Dully says.

Howard Dully's two-year journey in search of the story behind his
lobotomy is over. "I'll never know what I lost in those 10 minutes
with Dr. Freeman and his ice pick," Dully says. "By some miracle it
didn't turn me into a zombie, crush my spirit or kill me. But it did
affect me. Deeply. Walter Freeman's operation was supposed to relieve
suffering. In my case it did just the opposite. Ever since my lobotomy
I've felt like a freak, ashamed."

But now, after meeting with Welch and her mother, Dully says his
suffering is over. "I know my lobotomy didn't touch my soul. For the
first time I feel no shame. I am, at last, at peace."

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.

[12]Listen to this story... [13]Download [14][icon_arrow_orange.gif] To 
download, PC users right-click and
select "save target as." Mac users control-click and "save (or
download) link as." [15]Howard Dully during his transorbital lobotomy, Dec. 16, 

Howard Dully during his transorbital lobotomy, Dec. 16, 1960. George
Washington University Gelman Library

Howard Dully holding one of Dr. Walter Freeman's original ice picks,
January 2004.

Howard Dully holding one of Dr. Walter Freeman's original ice picks,
January 2004. Courtesy Sound Portraits, George Washington University
Gelman Library

More About the Story

   * Nov. 16, 2005
  [17]Walter Freeman's Lobotomies: Oral Histories
   * Nov. 16, 2005
  [18]Frequently Asked Questions About Lobotomies
   * Nov. 16, 2005
  [19]A Lobotomy Timeline

More From Sound Portraits

Additional interviews, oral histories and information about the
   * [20]'My Lobotomy'

Excerpts from the Story

   * [21]In 2004, for the first time since the operation, Rodney Dully,
  Howard Dully's father, agreed to discuss the lobotomy with his
   * [22]Walter Freeman's son Frank tells Howard Dully about the
  origins of the transorbital lobotomy developed by Dr. Freeman.
   * [23]Howard Dully meets Carol Noelle, who describes the results of
  a Freeman lobotomy on her mother.

Dr. Walter Freeman operating on a patient, c. 1950.

Dr. Walter Freeman operating on a patient, c. 1950. University
Archives, The Gelman Library, The George Washington University

   * [24]Hear a 1968 Diary Entry from Dr. Walter Freeman

Dully family

Howard, standing in front, with his parents, June Dully and Rodney
Dully (holding Howard's brother Brian), in Oakland, Calif., c. 1950.
Courtesy Howard Dully

Howard Dully's stepmother, Lou, in California, 1955.
Howard Dully's stepmother, Lou, in California, 1955.
Howard Dully, tree climbing in Los Altos, Calif., 1955.
Howard Dully, tree climbing in Los Altos, Calif., 1955.

Oral Histories

Patricia Moen and Wolfhard Baumgartel
Harvey Wang

Patricia Moen was lobotomized by Walter Freeman in 1962 at the age of
36. As a staff physician at Ohio, Wolfhard Baumgartel observed Freeman
perform a series of lobotomies.
   * [25]Read Their Oral Histories

[27]All Things Considered, November 16, 2005 ·

Related NPR Stories

   * Aug. 10, 2005
  [28]Nobel Panel Urged to Rescind Prize for Lobotomies
   * March 10, 2005
  [29]Tales of a Medical Renegade: 'The Lobotomist'

Lobotomy Resources

   * [49]Psychosurgery.org: A site dedicated to lobotomy survivors and
  their relatives
   * [50]'The Lobotomist,' a biography of Walter Freeman by Jack El-Hai
   * [51]The Walter Freeman / James Watts Collection at George
  Washington University
   * [52]An Account of One of Dr. Walter Freeman's Transorbital

[53]Sound Portraits "My Lobotomy" was produced by Piya Kochhar and Dave Isay at 
Portraits Productions. The editor was Gary Covino. Special thanks to
Larry Blood and Barbara Dully. Major funding was provided by the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting with additional support from the
National Endowment for the Arts.

More Resources

Great & Desperate Cures by Elliot S. Valenstein (Basic Books, 1986)

Last Resort: Psychosurgery and the Limits of Medicine by Jack Pressman
(Cambridge University Press, 1998)

[54]The Lobotomist
by Jack El-Hai


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