As I’ve often mentioned, I’ve been working for quite some time on a study of the photographs of Walter Freeman. Freeman, a Washington, D.C., based physician, was the world’s foremost lobotomist; it’s estimated that he lobotomized some 3,500 people.
He was also a prolific and dedicated photographer. He almost invariably took photos of his patients before and after the procedure, acquiring reams of these images over the course of his career. In a chapter of my book, Depth Perception, I argue that Freeman was participating in a much longer-standing tradition of psychiatric photography, one that claimed that the human face could reveal the depths of the soul. (You can see a recorded version of the story of Freeman’s photographs here.) Continue reading “The Case of the Missing Faces”
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time investigating the history of lobotomy, and particularly the kinds of visual evidence doctors used to support this practice. It’s part of the book I’m finishing, Depth Perception, which is broadly about the ways doctors have used film and photography during the twentieth century. In one of my chapters, I write about the lobotomist Walter Freeman, who was a prolific photographer, describing what he thought his patient photographs showed, and how our understandings differ today.
I get a lot of questions about lobotomy from people who find me on the Web, and I know other people who specialize in the subject do, too. I thought it might be helpful for me to write down some of the answers to the most frequent questions I get about the practice of lobotomy in the United States.
I’m sorry to say that I can’t answer individual questions on this subject, but I do provide references to some excellent books on the subject below.
What is a lobotomy?
The term “lobotomy” (often used interchangeably with “psychosurgery” during the period in which it was practiced) refers to an operation that severs the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, in the anterior part of the brain’s frontal lobe. Generally, it was performed in one of two ways. From 1936 to 1945, lobotomies were generally performed by drilling two holes in the skull, near the patient’s temples, inserting a long instrument called a leucotome, and severing the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex. From 1945 until 1967, lobotomies were generally performed by inserting a long, thin instrument into the back of a patient’s eyeball, puncturing the thin orbital plate above the eye and rotating the instrument so that it destroyed the connections to the brain’s frontal lobe. This second type of lobotomy is called the transorbital lobotomy.[1. Pressman, Jack David. Last Resort: Psychosurgery and the Limits of Medicine. Cambridge History of Medicine. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 1998.]
I’ve posted a number of times about Walter Freeman, the lobotomist, and his photographs of his patients. I presented on the subject for a Film Studies colloquium here at Emory, and you can view a recording of that presentation here. (See this bibliography for sources.)
I’ve noticed some distortion in this Flash video; you can view a higher-quality version over at the Internet Archive.
Walter Freeman, the psychiatrist who popularized lobotomy, called photography his “magnificent obsession.” There’s no doubt that Freeman loved to shock, and his lobotomy photographs and films were part of Freeman’s arsenal of attention-getters.
But Freeman was also part of a long tradition of looking at a patient’s face and body in order to deduce the contents of her mind. So, in a way, he’s not as eccentric as his obsession might make him seem.
These are really difficult photographs: difficult to see, difficult to analyze, and difficult to talk about. Lobotomy has become a kind of joke (“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me!”), and yet, here you are, faced with real people caught in a terrible situation. How do you talk about them without reducing them to elements in an argument?
I was reminded of how tough this was when Katherine Wells, a producer at NPR’s Science Friday, contacted me to ask about doing a feature for Science Friday’s Science and the Arts website about the lobotomy photographs. You can see the result here.