Dr. James Freemen
performing a ten-minute "ice pick" lobotomy,
having done the procedure on Spencer State
Hospital patients and hundreds of other mentally
ill subjects in WV institutions in early 1950s
Egas Moniz, M.D. (left)
originator of the frontal lobotomy, inducts
Walter Freeman, M.D. (center) who did hundreds
of lobotomies on WV state hospital patients,
being inducted into Lisbon's Academy of Science
as a foreign member in 1948. In 1949 Dr. Moniz
received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his
work. Victims have called for Moniz's Nobel
prize to be recalled (Picture courtesy of the
National Library of Medicine)
Hospital once described as the longest
one roof in eastern USA, long view circa early
By Bob Weaver 2007
Spencer State Hospital,
during it's 100-plus year history, housed and
treated thousands of regional residents who were
declared mentally ill or incompetent. It
provided employment for hundreds of regional
residents, most of which were paid sub-standard
Among the darkest periods
of the hospital's service to the community is
likely the performing of lobotomies on patients
in the 1950s, critically called "ice pick
Dr. Walter Freeman
performed 228 transorbital lobotomies during a
two-week period in 1952 in West Virginia,
through a state-sponsored lobotomy project
dubbed "Operation Ice Pick" by newspapers.
inserting pick through eye orbit into the brain
Frontal lobotomies were
performed by inserting a two-pronged device in
the orbit of the eye, and with a sharp blow,
driving it into the brain.
The promised result -
relief or change from the person's traumatic
One account says Freemen
did nearly 800 such surgeries in WV, while
hundreds of others were performed not by
surgeons, but by ordinary doctors with little or
no surgical training.
Former employees of
Spencer State Hospital claim the surgery was
crudely done by a staff doctor and "a
thrown-together staff of hospital workers."
Many of the 1200 Spencer
patients in the 1950s were unwanted individuals
and children. They were cared for by three
doctors and 150 psychiatric aides.
In an interview published
October, 1980 in the Charleston Gazette, Dr.
Thomas C. Knapp, superintendent at Spencer when
the first frontal lobotomies were performed,
called it "a grim time for our profession."
Dr. Freeman, known as the
father of lobotomies in America, just "dropped
in" to Spencer State Hospital "without prior
announcement," Knapp recalled.
"He was a big name in
neurology and he had all the proper papers and
signatures-all I could do was watch. It was a
real grisly thing."
Knapp recalled that
Freeman forgot the surgical hammer he used to
pound the spikes into the brain. "We finally
found a wooden mallet in the kitchen and that's
what he used," said Knapp.
"I was never convinced
that the operation was helpful and it appeared
to me we were dealing with a sadistic bastard,"
he told the reporter.
The purpose of performing
a lobotomy was to sever the nerve tracks from
the frontal lobe of the brain, where ideas
originate, and the mid-brain, the seat of the
Knapp explained the
surgery cut off reactions to thoughts.
Lobotomized patients became apathetic zombies
because they had no emotional feelings.
Dr. Freeman gave
statistics from 228 patients upon which he
operated during one West Virginia experiment,
saying eighty-six had been discharged from the
hospital with five returning.
"There are 36 more ready
to go home as soon as their families can take
them. Another 29 have shown some improvement but
still need hospital care. Of the 77 remaining,
73 have shown no improvement and four have
died," he wrote.
Knapp said if long-term
follow-up was done, the number who actually
improved would be practically zero.
Knapp remembered one of
the patients died from an inter-cranial
hemorrhage. Knapp concluded Freeman "butchered a
lot of patients who could have been helped when
psychotic drugs came out."
In Jack El-Hai's book "The
Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His
Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental
Illness," the writer describes Freeman as saying
his lobotomy campaign was "a gratifying
experience," a successful mass marketing of his
desire to radically transform the field of
Postcard of Spencer State
Main entrance to hospital
One account says "Freeman
devoted an intensity and energy to his mission
in West Virginia that surpassed nowhere else.
Over the next four years he frequently visited
the state, with the result that its per capita
rate of lobotomy was the highest in the nation.
In the 1950s Freeman operated on additional
patients at West Virginia hospitals in
Huntington, Lakin, and Spencer."
"At the hospital in Lakin,
a segregated institution mostly for "colored
boys," Freeman was pleased when he returned "a
week or so after operating upon twenty very
dangerous Negroes and found fifteen of them
sitting under trees with only one guard in
sight. It was the first time that they had been
out of the seclusion rooms for anywhere from six
months to seven years," the report said.
Newsweek reported the
operation had made the mental patients much
easier to care for in the institutions, leading
to discharging patients from a crowded
The New York Times
reported that Dr. Freeman was on a crusade to
teach his technique to doctors in America.
Accounts indicate about
50,000 people had the surgery between the
mid-1930s and the 1970s.
In a 1952, Time reported
that "ice pick" patients suffered from a variety
of mental disorders ... anxiety neuroses, while
others fought against irrational fears, morbid
thoughts, hallucinations and suicidal
"By the time he finished
his experiments with patients in West Virginia
mental hospitals last month, Washington
Neurologist Walter Freeman had supervised or
performed more than 200 of these transorbital
lobotomies (TIME, May 28, 1951) in two weeks.
He already had more than
1,000 other lobotomies to his credit.
A blue loose leaf notebook
was surrendered by the hospital to the archives
of the W. Va. Department of Culture and History,
containing photographic records of nearly 200
Spencer State Hospital patients Freeman operated
on between 1949 and 1952. The photos show each
patient before, during and after the surgery.
University has 77 linear feet of documents
regarding Freemen's surgeries, including a
section on West Virginia.
The hospital was closed in
1989 and has been torn down.
Contributed by Steve Hughes
- Spencer WV