Writing about lobotomy photographs

Pages from Walter Freeman's Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders
Pages 418 and 419 from Psychosurgery

It often seems to me that writing history is an exercise in hubris. I never felt that more than when trying to write about Walter Freeman’s photographs of the people he lobotomized.

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.

Katherine is actually a former student, so I knew she’d do a terrific job with the slideshow (and she did). Still, we spent a lot of time talking about how to treat these photographs with respect.

I haven’t previously posted these photographs on the Web, and I even have reservations about using these photographs in academic presentations. These photographs have been widely published before, in Freeman’s book about lobotomy, Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders, so it wouldn’t be their first exposure to the public sphere.

Still, I know Walter Freeman used these photographs to advance his arguments about lobotomy. I’m no lobotomist, but what are my motivations for showing these photographs? Am I, too, using real people as pawns in an argument? Am I using them to advance my career?

This came home to me in Walter Freeman’s archives in Washington, D.C., when I opened a box and suddenly found myself holding Freeman’s lobotomy implements.

My hand holding a leucotome from Walter Freeman's archivesA set of tools for performing lobotomies from Walter Freeman's archives

When I think about what I hope to do with these photographs, I think about the way that Freeman used them. Here’s a set embedded in the pages of Freeman’s Psychosurgery.

Pages from Walter Freeman's Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders
Pages 418 and 419 from Psychosurgery

On its own, a photograph could mean anything. There’s so much information here about who this person might be and what she might be thinking.

Photograph of a woman

But when you arrange it as the “before” in a “before and after” story, the meaning becomes very different. Suddenly this person is broken, and then fixed.

Before and after photographs of a woman who was lobotomized

The meaning changes even more when you surround these photographs with pages of text documenting the patient’s psychopathy.

Pages from Walter Freeman's Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders
Pages 418 and 419 from Psychosurgery

What had seemed to contain infinite possibilities is now reduced to an exemplar of psychosis.

If I could get the story right, maybe it would be possible to break the photographs out of Freeman’s narrative. Maybe I could show that these faces contain more possibilities than Freeman ever saw.

Photograph of a woman

4 Replies to “Writing about lobotomy photographs”

  1. I found out a few years ago (grandmother kept it a family secret) why I never knew my grandfather. He was in a mental instution almost his whole adult life. I found he had a lobotomy. In just the last couple days from more research I found articles of Dr Freeman how he went to WV hospitals and did lobotomites. My grandfather was in a WV hospital. I have never seen a picture of him, never ever, and I don’t care if it is a picture of him having this done I just want and need to see a picture of him so MUCH. Can you tell me how to get to these archives? I have no clue, please help me.

  2. Hi Chris,

    You’re right, Walter Freeman had a special relationship with state hospitals in West Virginia. He called this study, in which he lobotomized 228 mental patients, the West Virginia Lobotomy Project.

    If Freeman did indeed perform your grandfather’s lobotomy — and he may not have, since he enlisted other doctors to participate — there is a good chance that there is a photograph of your grandfather within Freeman’s patient records. Freeman’s patient records are archived at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In fact, people like me can’t see these restricted files. Only people like you, who are direct descendants of Freeman’s patients, are allowed access to Freeman’s patient records.

    If your grandfather was not one of Freeman’s patients, you might check to see if the hospital where you grandfather was a patient maintains an archive. Failing that, you might see if the local historical society or university archive can help you.

    Here is a description of the Freeman/Watts Collection.

    Here is a page with information on getting in touch with the archivists at George Washington University. I’ve spoken with the archivists there and can assure you that they’re very sensitive and helpful.

    I hope that you can find photographs of your grandfather, and that they bring you and your family peace.


  3. My mother’s Mother, Margaret Hannan had a nervous breakdown when my mother was a young girl. Margaret Hannan who is my Great Grandmother was institutionalized at Mayview State Hospital. My Uncle told me that they performed electroshock therapy on her a lot and she just got worse. I really want to know if she had any kind of lobotomys done. She would have lived there from 1939 until they closed it. I am doing a family tree and wonder about her. There is a lot of mental illness in my mother’s side of our family.

  4. Ann, I found out my great grandfather had a lobotomy from the mental hospital in Carroll County Maryland that is was took his life. It was a family secret. It said he was schizophrenic. It was on his death certificate. Maybe get a copy of that.

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