Thursday, February 07, 2008

His lobotomy, his recovery, in his words

Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer

Until he was 5, Howard Dully was a happy child. That was the year his mother, June, died of cancer. June was "loving and indulgent," Dully writes, so devoted that his father once said, "I could've dropped dead and it...

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bobmc7 wrote:

Did they mention what happened to the Stepmom? She deserves to die slowly and burn in hell for eternity.

Posted 9/26/2007 11:27:47 AM

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glasskey wrote:

Agreed with those who bring up the current craze for chemical brain-tinkering to keep the "weirdos" "on track". How much more horrifying is it that the masses of scarred, dulled people walking around in a zombie prozac ambien ritalin god-knows-what-else haze are invisible? Most of these people are canaries in the coalmine, letting us know our world is out of whack. If we'd only listen and appreciate their perspective. Mr. Dully is an angel, and I hope the doc and stepmom are in prison. The dad needs some serious therapy and to make amends.

Posted 9/26/2007 11:31:28 AM

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glasskey wrote:

Update: Walter Freeman, lobotomy doc, dead from cancer 1972. I hope he suffered.

Posted 9/26/2007 11:36:20 AM

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cherita77 wrote:

This is how people dealt with "non-conformists" in the family, especially if they had $$$. Mental hospitals for woman that cut their hair and had a cocktail, stayed out late dancing .. shock treatments for men who did not want to go into Daddy's business. Check it out folks, cause that way of thinking has not gone away. Ritalin, etc.. Hey, DON'T TAZE ME, DOC!! Let's get numb and right in line, and in step, and don't disagree and don't make waves and don't wear loud colors, and don't listen to music and don't dance, and STOP THINKING SO MUCH!!! Respect My Authority!!

Posted 9/26/2007 12:07:09 PM

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SoozeeQ wrote:

Thank goodness for happy (happier) endings. This is indeed a touching story.

Posted 9/26/2007 12:20:12 PM

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lambchop wrote:

These are oral histories of Freeman's lobotomy procedures.

Posted 9/26/2007 12:59:49 PM

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hmmm wrote:

what kind of sick, crazy person(s) would do this to a child?????? WOW

Posted 9/26/2007 1:05:45 PM

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Mercurius wrote:

This sort of stuff hasn't stopped. Take a look at Amanda Baggs articles on the mistreatment of autistics. Once you have a neurological or psychiatric label, any level of abuse can be excused as therapy.

Posted 9/26/2007 1:28:29 PM

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Mamacita wrote:

Howardwasright is right. How different is this from drugging kids up on Ritalin? Not to defend the step-mom, she sounds like a terrible person, but this was almost 50 years ago and child rearing changes every 2 years it seems. At that time lobotomies were more acceptable...look even shock therapy is coming back and it's apparently effective for some folks...if you'd mentioned it 10 years ago you'd seen a lot of the same comments as above. Here's a minor more benign example: When I was born 43 years ago my mother wanted to breastfeed me. Her doctor told her it wasn't clean and her mother told her her breasts were too small to supply me with milk. And now everybody is strongly encouraged to breastfeed and even made to feel bad if they can't/won't. Everything changes.

Posted 9/26/2007 1:43:36 PM

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zooney22 wrote:

What people will do to each other never ceases to shock, sadden and frighten us. What is of greater impact is that this man survived and shows no bitterness. In fact, his motivation to write the book reflects the humanity and caring for others that help us get through all that shocks, saddens and terrifies us. Thank you Mr. Dully for sharing your story.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Neurologist Walter Freeman invented and promoted the “ice pick lobotomy” in the mid-20th century. He reportedly performed this controversial procedure on over 10,000 patients who were stricken with all manner of mental illness.

In 1960, at the age of 12, Howard Dully was one of Dr. Freeman’s youngest patients. Dully’s stepmother insisted on the lobotomy, despite the 12-year-old not demonstrating any tendencies beyond that of a regular young boy. Dully’s father agreed, and the family paid $200 to Freeman.

My Lobotomy chronicles Dully’s life before and after his lobotomy. His childhood was cruel, and not just the normal amount of cruel a child of the ‘50s could expect. His stepmother was verbally and physically abusive; his siblings verify the treatment he received as the family’s whipping post.

Dully began to act out even more when he was labeled a problem child - petty crimes and a bad attitude were the norm. It is difficult to determine if he was actually a troubled child or just living up to the expectations of his stepmother.

His stepmother took him to several psychiatrists who each said Dully was fine; a few even said she was the issue. This was before she met Dr. Freeman. Thanks to the wealth of information available on lobotomies and Freeman’s own mass of copious notes, Dully is able to provide great depth to the doctor’s story and of his personal case file.

Dully’s lobotomy went off as expected, and the results were immediately positive. Eventually, though, the positivity faded away when Dully began to have greater issues that further strained his family relationships, found him in and out of “halls” and “centers”, and secured an adult life of instability for him.

At the age of 54, with children of his own, Dully set out to discover the circumstances of his young life and the lobotomy that altered it forever. His search led to sharing his story in the media and now with this book. Dully has a flair for the details - every single detail, to be specific, both personal and historical details. Fortunately, the story has an enormous amount of human interest to keep it from being crushed under all the details.

My Lobotomy is remarkable as a simple survivor story, but also as a commentary on medicine. It answers tough questions and poses important new questions as well.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Zane Ewton, 2008

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Published: January 21, 2008

TAMPA - Howard Dully was 12 years old when his stepmother opted for the lobotomy.

Dully assumed the procedure was routine and that she knew best how to cure his "mental illness." But she came close to turning the youngster into a vegetable.

"I didn't realize how barbaric it was until later in my life," Dully said by telephone from his home in San Jose, Calif. "As a kid, it didn't really matter to me."

The 59-year-old Dully works as a bus driving instructor. Last year, he published a book called "My Lobotomy," which traces what happened that day in 1960 and the impact it continues to have on his life. The story unfolds tonight on an "American Experience" television documentary.

Dully was one of an estimated 30,000 people in the United States who had documented lobotomies in the two decades after World War II. A now-discredited form of psychosurgery, the lobotomy at one time was heralded as a medical breakthrough in the treatment of mental disorders. By any credible scientific standard, lobotomies are crude and horrific, experts say, and often did irreparable damage to the patient's brain.

"I had to deal with a lot of anger about what was done to me," Dully said. "It channeled into rebellion over the years. But I realized anger wasn't going to do any good because I didn't have enough information about what happened to me until much later in my life."

Dully's anger over his stepmother's decision boiled over to the man who performed the procedure, an American psychiatrist named Walter Freeman. He performed nearly 3,000 lobotomies on people suffering from dementia, depression or other mental conditions - many of whom had never been diagnosed for their problems.

Freeman was 28 years old when he arrived in 1924 at St. Elizabeth's in Washington, D.C., a hospital for the mentally ill. Appalled by what he saw, he dedicated himself to improving the lives of such people. He embarked on a bold experiment to identify and alter the part of the brain he believed caused mental instability.

Freeman began exploring lobotomy techniques in 1936 after reading about a treatment for depression being done in Portugal. Freeman expanded on the idea by drilling holes into the skull, then turned to a more "efficient" technique using long pins resembling ice picks. He conducted his first "ice pick" lobotomy in 1946, separating the thalamus from the frontal lobe of a frantic, suicidal woman. As he predicted, she became docile - but unresponsive.

As Freeman conducted more lobotomies, he advertised his dramatic results, promoting his technique as a 10-minute medical marvel. Nearly all his procedures included press coverage and before-and-after photo ops. In 1952, he made headlines by performing 25 lobotomies in a single day. Freeman soon enjoyed celebrity.

"He had a kind of perverse need to shock people," Elliot Valenstein, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, said in the documentary.

Dully's stepmother read about Freeman and scheduled a consultation about the boy's personality, which she called "unruly and defiant." After examining the boy, Freeman suggested a transorbital lobotomy. Dully was brought to Freeman's office on Dec. 16.

After rendering the child unconscious with electroshock therapy, Freeman inserted a stainless-steel ice pick underneath the upper lid of each eye, then tapped it with a rubber mallet until it broke through the socket wall. He then wiggled the rod back and forth to cut connections to the frontal lobe of the brain.

"But I didn't have a mental illness," Dully said. "What it was supposed to do, it didn't do at all."

While Dully said his lobotomy made little noticeable difference to him physically or mentally as he was growing up, it eventually had an impact on his life, including feelings of abandonment.

"I always felt that something was taken from me, that there was a piece missing because my life has never gone well," he said. "Some of my judgment is not good. I don't have the drive that a normal person has. I've had trouble almost all my life in almost anything I did: work, relationships, money. I wasted my whole life on this one issue. My whole life."

Freeman continued performing lobotomies long after the development of anti-psychotic drugs. His last procedure was in 1967 on a housewife named Helen Mortenson. The operation was traumatic - Mortenson died of a brain hemorrhage - and Freeman's license to practice medicine was revoked.

Before he died of cancer in 1972, Freeman spent his last years visiting his former patients, some of whom called him an amoral monster. Others had no idea who he was - or what he had done to them.

Dully's story, as well as the career of Freeman, are the focus of the "American Experience" documentary, "The Lobotomist," airing tonight on PBS. The special addresses a dark chapter in modern American medicine and underscores the parallel between ambition and compassion.

"What amazes me about all this is the medical community didn't have any oversight" on Freeman's work, Dully said. "It wasn't done in an operating room. They gave you electroshock beforehand, then Freeman took the ice picks out of his pocket. They weren't even sterilized."


The Lobotomist

WHAT: An "American Experience" documentary

WHEN: 10 tonight

WHERE: WEDU Channel 3


Reporter Kurt Loft can be reached at (813) 259-7570 or

Howard Dully can be reached at (408) 677-4910 or

Howard Dully

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Howard Dully was, at 12 years of age, one of the youngest recipients of the transorbital or "ice-pick" lobotomy. This was a radical treatment for mental illness devised and performed by neurologist Walter Freeman. Freeman believed that mental illness could be cured by severing the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that he believed was the cause of overactive emotions.

Dully has taken over 40 years to recover from the surgery; he was institutionalized, incarcerated, and was eventually homeless and an alcoholic. After sobering up and getting a college degree in Computer Information Systems, he became a State Certified Behind the Wheel Instructor for a school bus company in San Jose, California. In his 50s, he started to research what had happened to him as a child, speaking with his family, relatives of other lobotomy patients, and relatives of Dr. Freeman, and gaining access to Freeman's archives.

Dully has written a book about his experience called My Lobotomy, with the assistance of journalist Charles Fleming.

The industrial rock band Filter chose to have one of Howard's childhood photos placed on the cover of their 1995 debut album, Short Bus.


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