The Lobotomist
American Experience Season 20

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Episode Info

In this installment of American Experience, filmmakers take a closer look at one of the most controversial medical procedures in the history of medicine. Back in the early-20th Century, individuals suffering from mental illness had little hope of ever staging a full recovery: Psychiatric medications had not yet been discovered, and the afflicted were often herded into overcrowded state asylums. Despite the fact that Freudian psychoanalysis and "talk" therapy were slowly gaining in popularity, an enterprising young neurologist named Walter Freeman proposed a radical new form of brain surgery in order to lessen the severity of psychotic symptoms in his patients. Having hailed from a long line of medical professionals, Freeman was no stranger to the inner workings of the body, and after learning of a Portuguese neurologist who operated on the frontal lobes of the mentally ill by using a thin steel instrument, he set about perfecting the procedure and importing it for practice in the United States. The procedure, known as the lobotomy, may have only yielded mixed results in the early 1940s, yet doctors in nearly fifty state asylums began performing lobotomies on their patients and as a result Freeman was hailed a hero of modern medicine. A decade later, however, the same procedure that some claimed brought hope to the utterly hopeless was hailed as barbaric, and Freeman was labeled a moral monster. How is it that opinion could have changed so drastically in such a short amount of time? Now, as filmmakers speak with a series of medical historians, psychiatrists, colleagues of Dr. Freeman, and the families who sought him out as a last resort, viewers are offered a revealing glimpse into the origins of a medical procedure that ruined countless lives.


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