Throughout the history of medicine there have been few surgical practices more barbaric, cruel, and yet sometimes surprisingly helpful than the lobotomy. Famous lobotomy patients range from children of politicians and English lords, to singers who were on their way to stardom before finding themselves waylaid by mental illness. The personality, memory, and IQ of lobotomy patients before and after surgery varies wildly, and doctors were not able to fully understand what was happening and why. These true stories about lobotomy patients are at times emotionally draining, but a few of them also reveal an unexpected beacon of light.
When you think about the worst things that happened to lobotomy patients, it’s hard to decide which nightmare scenario is worse. When it comes to reading true stories about people that received a lobotomy, it’s a bit like playing a twisted game of “would you rather?” So while you read this collection of stories about people who went under the knife to have their brains fiddled with, consider all the possible outcomes of this strange and dangerous surgery.
When Rosemary Kennedy was born, the medical community was still decades away from understanding dyslexia, or learning disabilities. She was simply seen by her parents as a troubled child with deficient basic cognitive skills who lacked the ability to retain knowledge, and by the age of seven she was removed from the Edward Devotion School.
Throughout her teens, Rosemary never made it past a fourth grade reading or writing level and was shown to have an IQ somewhere between 60 and 70. By the time she was 23, her father, Joe Kennedy, had decided that what she needed was a frontal lobotomy. It was thought he was afraid his daughter might embarrass him and his son and hurt their chances in politics.
Prior to the procedure, Rosemary was described as being absolutely adoring of her brothers, especially Jack, but she could fly into a rage if she didn’t get her way. One night when she was caught sneaking out of the house, she erupted in a violent tantrums that would soon turn to seizures.
In November 1941, Dr. Walter Freeman performed the surgery with Dr. James Watts, and they sliced away at the young woman’s frontal lobe until the left side of her body was partially paralyzed.
After the surgery Rosemary was sent off to a mental institution where she had to relearn how to brush her teeth, walk, and dress herself. The bubbly and sometimes volcanically angry young woman was replaced with someone who was just above an invalid, who could only grunt, shriek, or scream. Tragically, she could no longer even recognize her beloved brothers.
The older sister of Tennessee Williams, Rose was schizophrenic and described by her playwright brother as one of the sweetest, genuine people he ever knew. In his memoirs, Williams notes that when Rose would go on a date she “would talk with an almost hysterical animation which few young men knew how to take.”
In 1926, Rose wrote a letter to her grandmother describing her depression:
I don’t know what was the matter with me except that I was so nervous that I couldn’t hold the glass to take my medicine in. I stayed in bed all day long and had a big dose of calomel and I feel better but still weak. I just had finished a music lesson, and Miss Butell nearly drove me wild. It makes me nervous as a cat.
By 1943, Rose was beginning to lash out during manic episodes and agreed to undergo a frontal lobotomy. The surgery seemed to reduce Rose to the status of something just above a vegetable. She remained institutionalized, albeit in a swanky institution thanks to her brother’s fortune. In a post-surgery letter she wrote to Tennessee, she said, “I want some black coffee, ice-cream on a chocolate bar, a good picture of you, Your devoted sister, Xxx Rose. P.S. Send me one 1 dollar for ice cream.”
At the tender age of 15, a young man only known by the initials “H.M.” was hit by a cyclist and cracked his skull. From that injury he began suffering seizures that lasted for around 40 seconds at a time, and lost control of his bowels. H.M. sought out Dr. William Scoville, a man who was experimenting with “fractional” lobotomies, which destroyed less tissue and supposedly allowed patients to keep their original personalities.
On September 1, 1953, Scoville used a hand crank and one-dollar drill saw from a local hardware store to remove a bottle cap’s worth of bone from above each one of H.M.’s eyes. He then removed a few key parts of H.M.’s brain. After the surgery, H.M. only suffered about two seizures a year (a vast improvement), and his IQ jumped from 104 to 117, but he couldn’t form any new memories.
H.M. was forced to move back in with his parents where he performed odd jobs, despite having to ask multiple times what it was he was doing. It was later discovered that due to the loss of his hippocampus, H.M.’s brain began to understand time differently. According to Sam Kean: “Five minutes lasted, subjectively, just 40 seconds for him; one hour lasted three minutes; one day 15 minutes.”
H.M. passed away in a nursing facility at the age of 82 from respiratory failure, and his brain was removed immediately following his death, H.M.’s brain was shaved into 2,401 slices, each of which was mounted on a glass plate and photographed at 20x magnification, to form a digital, zoomable map down to the level of individual neurons.
Alys Robi was once described as “Canada’s answer to the renowned Latin singer and dancer, Carmen Miranda” because of her high-voltage renditions of Tico Tico, Besame Mucho, and You Belong to My Heart. Her obituary describes her as being an alluring, temperamental woman with magnetic eyes, but in 1952 she was sent to a mental institution following a car accident that left her mentally scarred and sent her into wild mood swings. Robi then suffered a mental breakdown, and afterwards was interred at the Quebec City asylum, where she received an alleged unwanted lobotomy.
After five years in the institution, Robi was released, and actually credited the lobotomy with her new, calm demeanor. “I woke up better and later understood that I was one of the rare lobotomy success stories,” she said.
Ellen Ionesco was the reportedly the first person to receive a transorbital lobotomy – a surgery where an icepick (or something pick-like) is forced through the back of the eye sockets to pierce the thin bone that separates the eye sockets from the frontal lobe.
Prior to her surgery, Ionesco was described by her daughter as “absolutely violently suicidal.” But after the lobotomy, performed on Jan. 17, 1946, the storm clouds seemed to evaporate: “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.”
Although the “soul surgery,” as Doctor Freeman put it, had a mostly positive outcome, there was still one blemish – Ionesco couldn’t remember anything about Freeman, including what he looked like. Fortunately, when she was interviewed at the age of 88 years old, Ioensco wasn’t too worried about the blank spot in her memory. “He was just a great man. That’s all I can say.”
In 1953 Anita McGee was treated by Doctor Walter Freeman for postpartum depression, and he definitely didn’t prescribe therapy to help improver her mental state. Instead, the doctor gave McGee a lobotomy that left her institutionalized for most of her life, and her daughter believes that Freeman’s desire to hand out lobotomies like they were pennies had something to do with whatever was going on in his own head: “I personally think that something in Dr. Freeman wanted to be able to conquer people and take away who they were.”
This Polish violinist was one of the most gifted classical musicians of the early 20th century, but he suffered from a severe mental disorder that sent him into violent mood swings where he would either grow silent and introverted, or destroy his violins. After being diagnosed as schizophrenic on June 19, 1941, he was admitted to St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, where he received electroconvulsive therapy.
Hassid’s condition improved and he was able to leave the hospital in May 1942, but by December, his moods were swinging wildly back and forth from silent and morose to crazed laughter, and he was admitted to Long Grove Hospital in Epsom. Eight years later, he was given a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy, and shortly afterwards he developed a postoperative infection that progressed into meningitis. He died on November 7, shortly before his 27th birthday.
From 1980 to1990, Reagan Youth bashed out an intense, politically charged form of hardcore that managed to tow the line between brilliant dumbed down circle pit anthems and trenchant critiques of the racist punk scene that was bubbling over throughout the ’80s. Unfortunately, the band’s singer, Dave Rubinstein, had a nasty heroin habit and ended up on the wrong end of a baseball bat one night during a drug deal gone bad. Rubinstein was put into a coma by the attack, and according to members of his band, the only chance that he could be saved was by giving him a lobotomy. (Yes, doctors were still performing lobotomies in the 1980s.)
After the surgery, Rubinstein technically recovered, but he was never again the punk rock intellectual that he was while fronting Reagan Youth for a decade. He quit singing with the band and threw himself completely into his addiction. In 1993, he would end his own life after his girlfriend, Tiffany Bresciani (a prostitute and exotic dancer), was murdered by the serial killer Joel Rifkin.
In 1944, Genevieve “Gennie” Pilarski was admitted to a state psychiatric facility known as the Manteno State Hospital in Manteno, Illinois, after she and her parents had a disagreement about where she should live post college. When she was admitted to the facility, a doctor described her as “neat, clean, tidy. Extremely quiet but friendly and agreeable. Cooperative in ward and routine.” He even noted that there were “no signs of active pathology.”
For some reason, instead of releasing Gennie on her own recognizance, the hospital staff subjected her to hydrotherapy, repeatedly plunging her into and out of ice water. Afterward, she asked: “Is life a farce?”
By May 1953, Gennie had undergone 187 electric shock therapies (two a week) and on February 18, 1955, she was subjected to an “extensive neurosurgery with bilateral extirpation of most of frontal and temporal lobes.” This unnecessary surgery left Gennie “mute, [and] totally dependent on commands for functioning of everything from toilet urges on up.”
None of this was reported to anyone, and for the next 45 years she was shuffled between nursing homes and mental wards until she passed away in 1998 at the age of 79.
According to Patricia, after being married to her husband for 13 years, she suddenly started crying constantly in 1962 at the age of 36. She told NPR, “I just mentally was no good,” and one night while she was home alone she took an entire bottle of pills in a last-ditch suicide attempt. That’s when Dr. Walter Freeman suggested that she get a lobotomy, although he did warn her that there was a possibility that she would end up a vegetable. According to Patricia, even though she couldn’t remember the surgery or her time at the hospital, she did feel different after the doctor tinkered with her brain.
“I was a more free person after I’d had it. Just not to be so concerned about things… I just, I went home and started living, I guess is the best I can say – just started living again and was able to get back into taking care of things and cooking and shopping and that kind of thing…”
As a 12-year-old boy, Howard Dully was described as defiant and “savage-looking.” His doctor’s notes on him at the time reveal a preteen with some mental issues who seems like he’s trying to test his boundaries with his father and stepmother. From Doctor Walter Freeman’s notes: “He doesn’t react either to love or to punishment. 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.” In other words, he’s 12.
In December of 1960, Doctor Freeman performed a lobotomy on Dully and his entire nature seemed to change. Dully’s stepmother noted that he “[sat] quietly, grinning most of the time and offering nothing.”
It took Dully decades to understand what happened to him, and he still suffers from memory loss (he doesn’t remember the 10 minute procedure at all), but he feels like he’s missing something.
“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,” he said.
Eric Walker was a Professor of History at the University of Cambridge who focused on the history of South Africa and the British Empire – although it should be noted that his work has now been deemed “Eurocentric” and inaccurate, to say the least. His tenure at Cambridge was greatly affected by World War II and a severe mental breakdown that he suffered in 1944. In 1946, he went to a mental institution, where he received a lobotomy before resuming his teaching duties.
His return to academia was short-lived, and in 1951, he retired and continued to work on a series of histories of South Africa, although by now they were heavily criticized. He and his wife moved to Durban, South Africa, in 1968 where he lived until his death eight years later.
Born in 1928, the Earl of Galloway was what we would now refer to as autistic. He was described as shy, as well as “awkward and unstable,” and diagnosed as a schizophrenic. His parents first sent him away to prep school to see if that could fix his odd behavior, and when that didn’t work, he was lobotomized in an attempt to control it. After the surgery, Stewart spent the next 15 years in the mental wing of the Crichton Royal Infirmary in Dumfries; then in 1970, his parents placed him in the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Roslin.
After finally leaving the monastery and marrying a commoner and shop girl, he said, “I was never the same again,” referring to the lobotomy. In the ’80s he tried to take a seat at the House of Lords, but he was unstable and prone to acts of violence. When that didn’t work out, he moved to sheltered housing in Borgue in Galloway.