At the peak of his career, Walter J. Freeman II was a celebrated physician and scientist. He served as the first chairman of the Department of Neurology at George Washington University and was a tireless advocate of surgical treatment for mental illness. His eccentric appearance, engaging personality during interviews, and theatrical demonstrations of his surgical techniques gained him substantial popularity with local and national media, and he performed more than 3000 prefrontal and transorbital lobotomies between 1930 and 1960. However, poor patient outcomes, unfavorable portrayals of the lobotomy in literature and film, and increased regulatory scrutiny contributed to the lobotomy’s decline in popularity. The development of antipsychotic medications eventually relegated the lobotomy to rare circumstances, and Freeman’s reputation deteriorated. Today, despite significant advancements in technique, oversight, and ethical scrutiny, neurosurgical treatment of mental illness still carries a degree of social stigma.
This review presents a historical account of Walter Freeman’s life and career, and the popularization of the lobotomy in the US. Additionally, the authors pay special attention to the influence of popular literature and film on the public’s perception of psychosurgery. Aided by an understanding of this pivotal period in medical history, neurosurgeons are poised to confront the ethical and sociological questions facing psychosurgery as it continues to evolve.