The Lobotomist

Produced and Directed by: Barak Goodman and John Maggio
Written by: Barak Goodman
Edited by: R.A. Fedde
Associate Producer: Kate Walker
Camera: Stephen McCarthy
Original Music: Edward Bilous
Additional Editing: John Maggio

Now considered one the most infamous medical mistakes in American history, lobotomy began as an idealistic remedy for mental illness. The story of how one man's energy and conviction could lead medicine down a blind alley, The Lobotomist is as scarily relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Description: In the early decades of the 20th century, before the development of psychiatric medications, there were few effective treatments for mental illness. For most patients, the last stop in their anguished journey was an overcrowded state asylum. While Freudian psychoanalysis and "talk" therapy was gaining prominence as a potential cure, an ambitious young neurologist named Walter Freeman advocated a more radical approach -- brain surgery to reduce the severity of psychotic symptoms. The brilliant scion of one of America's most distinguished medical families, Freeman spent years searching for the biological abnormality that lay at the roots of madness. In 1936, he learned of a Portuguese neurologist who was using a thin steel instrument to operate on the frontal lobes of mentally ill patients. Freeman set about perfecting the procedure he later named lobotomy and began performing it in the United States. Despite mixed results, by the early 1940s, some fifty state asylums were performing lobotomies on their patients. The procedure was hailed as a miracle cure, Freeman himself a visionary who brought hope to the most desolate human beings. Yet only a decade later, the story would come full-circle again. Freeman would be decried as a moral monster, the lobotomy as one of the most barbaric mistakes ever perpetrated by mainstream medicine. Through interviews with medical historians, psychiatrists who worked with Freeman, and the desperate families who sought his help, this American Experience episode tells a gripping tale of medical intervention gone awry.

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