Articles & Essays

Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

Read his articles and essays here.

Jack El-Hai's Books
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
    The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
    Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
  • Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
    Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
  • The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
    The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
Follow Jack on Twitter

The Nazi Brain Removal Caper

After the end of World War II, a Nazi leader dies in Allied custody under strange circumstances. An American military psychiatrist longs to prove his pet theory by having the Nazi’s brain removed from the body and examined. With help from a friend, the psychiatrist succeeds in extracting the organ and smuggling it out of Europe. A pathologist studies the brain to determine the correctness of the psychiatrist’s theory, and the result is. . .well, complicated.

The brain of Robert Ley

This happened, not in a bad movie of the 1960s, but in real life, in Nuremberg, Germany; Washington, D.C.; and beyond.

I first came across the story while researching my book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII. One of the first artifacts I encountered among the records of Douglas Kelley, M.D., a psychiatrist who had exclusive access to the top captured German leaders awaiting trial in Nuremberg for war crimes, was a set of glass slides. The slides showed different views of a dissected human brain. The label on the slides said the brain came from a man named Robert Ley.

I knew Ley as the emotionally unstable and hard-drinking head of the German Labor Front, a Nazi government agency that replaced trade unions and took charge of the affairs of German workers. Under Ley’s direction, the organization played a role in the gathering and mobilization of slave laborers, many of whom suffered and died in criminally brutal conditions.

Kelley met Ley during the summer of 1945, when the German was imprisoned and awaiting trial with 21 of the most culpable of his colleagues from the Nazi government and German military. The psychiatrist had assigned himself the task of determining whether a common mental disease or disorder afflicted the captured Germans and could explain their crimes against humanity. Ley, with his spells of shouting, crying, and proclaiming his allegiance to Adolf Hitler, was a subject of interest to Kelley.

Through the use of Rorschach inkblot testing and other psychological assessments, Kelley theorized that Ley — alone among the top German defendants — suffered from a behavioral disorder originating in the brain, the result of an airplane crash Ley had experienced World War I. Kelley’s tentative diagnosis of organic brain injury was bold, given the psychiatrist’s lack of access to any kind of brain imaging when examining Ley.

Ley became his Allied captors’ nightmare when he managed to strangle himself in his Nuremberg cell in October 1945. Kelley called Ley’s suicide a blessing, because it offered hope that the dead man’s brain could testify to the truth of Kelley’s brain-damage diagnosis. Kelley convinced a friend, U.S. Army pathologist Najeeb Klan, to secretly remove Ley’s brain in the Nuremberg morgue. Kelley then sent the brain, enclosed in a wooden crate marked “Spices,” on a transatlantic journey. It soon reached another of Kelley’s colleagues, neuropathologist Webb Haymaker, at the Army Institute of Pathology in Washington , D.C. In the process, it became the only brain of a Nazi leader given post-mortem scrutiny. Kelley asked Haymaker to examine the brain for signs of frontal-lobe damage.

Haymaker wrote back to Kelley that Ley’s brain evidenced “a long-standing degenerative process of the frontal lobes.” He couldn’t tell if a head injury caused the degeneration. Nevertheless Kelley felt exhilarated by the supposed prescience of his chancy diagnosis.

Joel E. Dimsdale, distinguished professor emeritus and research professor in the department of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, has unearthed more about the silent testimony of Ley’s brain. In his research, he quotes Nathan Melamud of the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, who in 1947 took his own look at Ley’s brain tissue at Haymaker’s request. “I am not impressed with any definite pathology in this case,” Melamud wrote, “at least such as would lead one to suspect a clinical organic condition…. [I]f real, the changes are not too significant.”

Kelley’s reaction to this less affirming second opinion is unknown. He had other things to ponder. By 1947, Kelley was deeply into the writing of a book that laid out his proposition that the German leaders had been infected by no psychiatrically active “Nazi virus” that accounted for their behavior. That declaration — and its implication that the German leaders were psychiatrically normal — did not go down well with the American public.

Further reading

Dimsdale, Joel E. Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals. Yale University Press, 2016.

Smelser, Ronald. Robert Ley: Hitler’s Labor Leader. Berg, 1988.


Does your company operate like the Third Reich?

When I wrote my book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII (PublicAffairs Books), which is about an American psychiatrist's involvement with the Nazi leaders and the consequences of his experience, I was surprised to learn how the physician’s insights into the leadership structure of the Third Reich can guide businesses today.

In 1945, U.S. Army psychiatrist Douglas McGlashan Kelley arrived in Nuremberg to study the psyches of the top 22 German officials charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. He found that these men — including Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Albert Speer — were not mentally ill. In fact, under Adolf Hitler’s direction, they had organized themselves in a hierarchy that Kelley found strikingly like that of a modern corporate board.

It was a dysfunctional board, however, with the Nazi leaders occupying four silos under CEO Adolf Hitler: a brain group that shaped Nazi ideology, culture, and policy; a marketing group that sold Hitler’s ideas to the world; a group of enforcers who used military and police might to crush dissent and ensure results; and a team of bureaucrats expert in finance, law, and planning who attended to the details.

Each group had little contact with any other. Only Hitler oversaw and understood the activities of the different compartments, and he grew dangerously irrational as World War II went on. Kelley found out, for instance, that Hitler planned to attack the Soviet Union much earlier than his advisors recommended because the Führer feared that stomach cancer would soon kill him. A hypochondriac and hysteric, he had no stomach cancer. But Hitler proceeded as if he did, prematurely launching Operation Barbarossa against the U.S.S.R. on June 22, 1941, and none of his subordinates could stop him. The Soviets ultimately forced back Hitler’s invasion, which proved to be a turning point in the war.

Any business that fails to provide its organizational groups with information and updates from other departments faces the same potential for disaster, especially when one or a small number of executives hoard knowledge of the entire firm’s operations.

Further reading:

Kelley, Douglas M. 22 Cells in Nuremberg. McFadden Publications, 1961.

World Future Fund. “Nazi Germany, Government Structures, Ministries and Party Organizations.”


Fighting the Legend of the “Lobotomobile”

Many people believe that the developer of the most dreaded form of psychiatric surgery traveled America in a camper van that he slyly called his "lobotomobile." It's a myth.Walter Freeman (right) performing a lobotomy with his surgical partner James Watts. 

 I often receive emails from middle school and high school students working on projects about the history of lobotomy, a now obsolete but once mainstream form of brain surgery intended to treat psychiatric illnesses. Between 1936 and the 1970s, between 40,000 and 50,000 Americans underwent this debilitating and rarely beneficial form of treatment. The young researchers write to me because I’m the author of The Lobotomist, a biography of the lobotomy advocate Walter Freeman. My book tells the story of the lobotomy’s development and sets the infamous procedure in the context of the history of psychiatric treatments and the life of its promoter.

Recently a student asked me to confirm a claim she had read online that Freeman, a devoted cross-country traveler who often undertook long trips to visit his former patients, called his camper-van and mobile office a “lobotomobile.” As much as I admire the cleverness and appropriateness of that term, I had to tell her that Freeman neither coined nor used that name for his vehicle. The nickname didn’t appear until a decade after Freeman’s death.

I’ve wondered whether as Freeman’s biographer I bear the responsibility to fight the persistent appearance of this legend or others associated with the lobotomist’s career, such as the myths that authorities stripped him of his medical license and that he performed lobotomies with a gold-plated ice pick. They’re all fictions, and they are so widespread it would be a gigantic if not impossible task to beat them down.

The misinformation about the “lobotomobile,” for instance, appears in Freeman’s Wikipedia page, in the Encyclopedia Britannica and Damn Interesting blogs, and in several books, as well as in countless other articles, blogs, and publications. The “lobotomobile” nickname even inspired a short movie by the Canadian filmmaker Sara St. Onge. While I enjoy watching this entertaining musical, I suspect it encourages viewers to believe that “lobotomobile” was a name that Freeman actually used.

The word is found nowhere in Freeman’s voluminous published and unpublished writings, including the correspondence, autobiography, memos, and notes he left to the archives at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Its earliest appearance in print seems to be in an account of one of Freeman’s patient-tracking road trips on page 246 of David Shutts’s 1982 book Lobotomy: Resort to the Knife“Still uncomfortable from surgery but able to drive, he headed southeast in a newly purchased camper-bus, which could be described as his ‘lobotomobile.’” Shutts’s usage suggests that he invented the word himself.

Perhaps the best way to explain the stubbornness of the myth of Freeman’s “lobotomobile” name is that it efficiently (although falsely) casts the physician as a monster who not only damaged patients’ brains but also mocked them by giving a flippantly humorous title to the van he used to conduct part of his grisly business. Clearly many people want to believe such a thing. But my research has convinced me that Freeman’s patients were too important to him — for reasons rooted in his compassion, hubris, and narcissism— to make fun of them in that way.

In the end, I’ve decided that I don’t have to confront all the wrong statements put out there about my biographical subject. I’ve written a book that offers my perspective of the man in all the complexity of his virtues and failings. Isn’t that enough?

For more information

PBS American Experience documentary The Lobotomist (2008)


Getting Started as a Writer of History

Journalism is the first rough draft of history, Alan Barth declared. Or is it the reverse, that history is just journalism, as Joseph Campbell mischievously asserted? Either way, there’s much in common between writing journalism and chronicling history, and I’ve spent my career exploring the overlap of those two great disciplines.

 I’m always surprised to see that few of my fellow journalists try writing about history. It could be that some writers find history intimidating, they’re afraid of making factual errors, or they mistakenly believe there's no market for historical writing. But many journalists who overcome these fears and reservations — including such people as David McCullough, Rebecca Skloot, Erik Larson, Candice Millard, Deborah Blum, and Sarah Vowell — have been well rewarded for focusing on the past. Their books have become best sellers and they have discovered the excitement of digging up the secrets of the dead by researching in archives, diving deeply into primary sources, and prying memories from living people.

I haven’t become a best-selling author of the stature of Skloot and Larson, but I have seen my history-driven books, articles, and presentations move, transport, and intrigue audiences. I’ve discovered astonishing collections of historical materials, written histories of multi-billion-dollar companies, and had my work published in eleven languages and optioned for film and TV. Many of my history-writer colleagues have become valued friends. What could be better?

If you are considering writing journalistic treatments of historical events, here are some tips:

  • Start local, with what’s around you. I sold my first history article after hearing that the sale of tobacco cigarettes had been illegal in my state for several years at the start of the twentieth century. My investigations proved it true. I did not have to travel to research the piece or search hard to find a publisher in my local city magazine. Is there some historical figure, story, statue, building, crime, or disaster from your region that intrigues you? Begin there.
  • Make connections across time. Trace a contemporary event or person’s experience to its historical source. When I found out that an elderly couple in my area was still searching for their three boys who had mysteriously disappeared decades earlier, I learned that their sons represented the oldest active case of missing children in the U.S. and that the parents’ search had fascinating historical roots. Alternatively, identify a historical event and follow its ripples to the present.
  • Give talks and presentations on your historical interests. You can speak at libraries, before community groups, and in academic and institutional settings. It will help you build a history-writing specialty, and attendees will bring more history stories your way. I love speaking to audiences, and I offer tips specifically for history speakers here.
  • Read inspiring history-focused nonfiction work. In addition to the authors mentioned above, seek out the work of such writers as Tim Brady, Marian Calabro, Beverly Gray, Bruce Henderson, Robin Marantz Henig, Ben Kamin, Steve Kemper, Nancy Kriplen, Pat McNees, John Rosengren, and Pamela Toler.

The attack of the leopard frogs

My new Discover Magazine article about the massive Oconto frog invasion of 1952 is currently behind a paywall, but here's a teaser.