brainI came across the obituary for John J Freeman, III in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend, and like many obituaries, it led me on a research project to understand the connections in this mans life.  A renowned medical researcher at UC Berkley he used electrodes, combined with high-level mathematics, to explore how the brain processes information.   An important contributor to neurology in his own right, it was really the history of his father, John J Freeman, II who was the more fascinating….as he perfected and proselytized about the use of the frontal lobotomy procedure in the US.

If you’ve not heard the story of John J Freeman, II MD, it is enlightening to find out how the ‘frontal lobotomy’ we have all heard of and spoken about, came to possess the US medical establishment.   Dr. Freeman, among the first neurologists in the US back in 1920’s, became fascinated by an emerging surgical technique called psychosurgery.  This is brain surgery meant to eliminate psychiatric disease.

Psychosurgery was developed in the 1930’s in Portugal, but perfected with the ‘icepick’ lobotomy, performed at the patient bedside, not the surgery suite, and involved inserted a sharp instrument through the corner of both  eyes, deep into the brain, to  effectively severe the connection between portions of the central brain and the frontal lobes.    This brain disruption resulted in resolution of severe depression and anxiety in some, but as one can imagine, had such wide-ranging and unpredictable injuries to the brain that it also led to devastating memory loss and reduced mental capacity.   Dr. Freeman did over 3000 of these procedures in the US, travelling about the country in his ‘lobotomobile’ performing surgeries, at the bedside, in many mental institutions across the US, at $25 per procedure.

Convinced of the effectiveness of this treatment, despite many complications including a 10% death rate and devastating neurologic complications, it is a sobering reminder of how treatment approaches can be ‘of a fashion’ in the medical sciences, despite our conviction that we continue to move forward with ever more legitimate scientific approaches.

What procedures are all the rage today and will be seen in the future as illegitimate as the frontal lobotomy is now…..who knows, but its important to keep a healthy skepticism and perspective on current medical theories and fashions.  Once again, Twain’s admonition rings true.

See more about John Freeman, II in a PBS Special  >>>>HERE<<<<