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

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