About The Lobotomist
Download the first chapter of The Lobotomist, or peruse the index. These excerpts are in PDF format, and you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to read them.
This groundbreaking new biography takes readers into one of the darkest chapters of American medicine — the desperate attempt to treat the hundreds of thousands of psychiatric patients in need of help during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Before the introduction of effective psychiatric medication in the 1950s, patients often had no choice other than to accept confinement in crowded and horrific asylums, or to submit to dangerous “shock” therapies.
Into this crisis stepped Walter Freeman, a neurologist and psychiatrist who believed he saw a way out of this quagmire. At a time when Freudian psychoanalysis and other “talk” therapies were growing ascendant, he advocated a completely different type of treatment — a brain operation intended to reduce the severity of psychotic symptoms. In partnership with neurosurgeon James Watts, Freeman adopted the surgical technique of a little known Portuguese physician, rechristened it lobotomy , and began performing the operation in the United States. In time, he transformed lobotomy into a controversial outpatient procedure, traveled the world performing psychosurgeries, and devoted his life to tracking the recovery of his patients. Meanwhile, his personal life collapsed around him.
As gripping as a medical thriller, The Lobotomist examines the motivations of a man whose personality combined brilliance with arrogance, compassion with egotism, and determination with stubbornness. The result is an unforgettable portrait of a physician who permanently shaped the lives of his patients, as well as the course of medical history.
In 2008, the PBS series American Experience broadcast a documentary based on the book. The Lobotomist recently began production as a TV pilot for HBO.
Watch the broadcast trailer for The Lobotomist, a PBS American Experience documentary based on Jack El-Hai's book.
The Lobotomist has received a great deal of media attention, including reviews and articles in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, Discover Magazine, Scientific American Mind, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among many others. Here’s a sampling of the praise:
“Jack El-Hai has written an absorbing, unsettling and cautionary story of the man who sold the lowly ice pick as the surgical solution to the mental illness of tens of thousands of people…. The author, a respected science journalist, started his research assuming that Freeman was akin to Josef Mengele. He ends this book with a nuanced, haunted view of his subject… With The Lobotomist, El-Hai gives his readers a first-class biography and, without saying so, a tutorial in the sober need for professional humility.”
— Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“In The Lobotomist, Jack El-Hai's lively biography, Freeman comes across as a classic American type, a do-gooder and a go-getter with a bit of the huckster thrown in.”
— William Grimes, The New York Times
“One of the many virtues of El-Hai's text is the rich detail he provides about Freeman's life and ideas. His readers will thus be able to judge Walter Freeman for themselves and decide whether he is, as El-Hai would have it, "a maverick medical genius" or, as others have concluded, a moral monster.”
— Andrew Scull, The Los Angeles Times
“A story of desperation among thousands of patients, families, clinicians and policymakers struggling to manage a population seemingly crippled by illnesses for which there was no help. It is also a worrisome account of physicians groping for solutions to problems that they could not adequately address. In this sense, El-Hai’s treatment of this medical saga is also poignant and illuminating.”
— Richard Lipkin, Scientific American Mind
“Relying heavily upon Freeman's notes, letters, and journals, El-Hai reconstructs the life of a man whose main mission, aside from personal glory, was to help the helpless… Driven, egotistical, brilliant, and focused, Freeman is as fascinating as the chronicle of twentieth-century psychiatry in which El-Hai sets his story.”
— Donna Chavez, Booklist
In the news
Radio programs around the world have featured The Lobotomist. Use these links to hear Jack El-Hai’s interviews and the responses of hosts and listeners.
Fresh Air with Terry Gross (NPR/WHYY)
To the Best of Our Knowledge (PRI/Wisconsin Public Radio)
The Diane Rehm Show (NPR/WAMU)
Minnesota Public Radio
The Sound of Young America