10 Horrifying Examples of People Subjected to Lobotomies and their Tragic Results
10 Horrifying Examples of People Subjected to Lobotomies and their Tragic Results

10 Horrifying Examples of People Subjected to Lobotomies and their Tragic Results

Larry Holzwarth - February 28, 2018

10 Horrifying Examples of People Subjected to Lobotomies and their Tragic Results
Warner Baxter (left) with June Lang and Fredric March in a publicity still for the film The Road To Glory in 1936. Wikimedia

Warner Baxter

Warner Baxter was a notable actor beginning in the days of silent films and continuing when the movies adopted sound as part of their experience for the audience. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor – the second ever awarded – for his role as the Cisco Kid in the first all-talking western motion picture entitled In Old Arizona. He worked with actors including Fredric March, Dick Powell, and Ginger Rogers and by the middle part of the 1930s was one of the most in-demand – and highest-paid – actors in Hollywood which included Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable.

That was the peak of his career, which during the war years degraded to the point that he was playing secondary roles in what was then called B pictures. B pictures were cheaply made full-length films which were made using either up and coming or washed-up actors and shown as second features in the movie houses of the time. Baxter’s waning popularity was driven by his being able to accept fewer roles due to his physical condition. Baxter had developed arthritis which as it worsened left him in crippling pain.

Throughout the 1940s his career slumped as his illness worsened, and there were few means of alleviating the crippling pain available to the medical profession of the day, other than opiates such as morphine and heroin. Baxter tried various medically recommended therapies and some of the quack cures which seem to persist around the fringes of the medical community, all to no avail. At the time lobotomies were considered by some medical professionals to be indicated for the relief of chronic pain, while other doctors and ethicists were horrified at the idea.

Baxter’s physicians warned him that the procedure could have effects that were unpredictable and that he may become fully disabled, but driven by the pain and the hope that it would relieve him of it he went ahead with a voluntary transorbital lobotomy in 1951. The operation apparently relieved him of the pain because in the wake of the procedure his complaints about the constant pain ceased. It also relieved him of his memory, he was unable to recognize friends, or even his doctors.

Baxter became in many ways an individual in a semi-catatonic state, uninterested in anything around him and in caring for himself. He was also subject to severe seizures and convulsions, neither of which had been present prior to the lobotomy. In May of 1951, a few months following the surgery, he died of pneumonia, which may have been linked not to the surgery but rather to his post-surgical care.

10 Horrifying Examples of People Subjected to Lobotomies and their Tragic Results
Galloway House, seat of the Earl of Galloway, is a far cry from the sheltered house occupied by the 13th Earl of Galloway. Wikimedia

13th Earl of Galloway, Randolph Keith Reginald Stewart

The Earl of Galloway was created as part of the Peerage of Scotland in 1623 and has descended since from the first Earl, Alexander Stewart. Randolph is the only son of the 12th Earl of Galloway, born in 1928. As a child, he was diagnosed as having schizophrenia and he was treated by the commonly accepted procedure of insulin shock therapy. He was also treated by electroconvulsive shock therapy and various emerging drug therapies. None of them worked, and his behavior remained sullen and often violent.

Randolph’s behavior had exhibited a propensity for throwing tantrums as a small child, which grew progressively more violent and frequent as he grew. He was sent to boarding school where he refused to eat, and the increasingly unmanageable youth failed to respond to any of the treatments which the medical and psychiatric communities attempted. At the age of 23 in 1952 his parents told him to prepare for a trip to the south and believing that he was going off on a holiday by the sea he packed for an extended stay.

Instead, he was sent to St. Mary’s Hospital in London, where he underwent a lobotomy. Following the procedure, he was sent to Crichton Royal Infirmary in the Scottish town of Dumfries. He remained in the mental health care wing at Crichton for the following fifteen years. While there he underwent further treatments for schizophrenia and other issues, later telling an interviewer that the operation had changed him forever and that he had never fully recovered from its effects.

In 1975 Randolph married the daughter of a chauffeur, against the wishes of his family, which led to his father disinherited him. Randolph’s wife was Lily Miller, and their marriage lasted until her death in 1999, despite a stormy and occasionally violent relationship. In 1979 Randolph attacked another woman unknown to him on a street in Edinburgh and was charged with the offense in Edinburgh Sheriff Court. In 1980 he attempted to strangle his wife. The tabloid press made much of what many of them called the “Mad Earl”.

Randolph inherited the title of Earl of Galloway upon the death of his father and attempted to claim his seat in the House of Lords, but was ineffective as a politician. His violent mood swings led him into multiple conflicts with the law, and whatever behaviors which the lobotomy was intended to alleviate appeared to remain. Following the death of his wife, he has lived in sheltered housing in the Scottish community of Borgue. The family estate from which he was disinherited by his father’s will remains, and the title of Earl of Galloway will pass to a distant cousin.

10 Horrifying Examples of People Subjected to Lobotomies and their Tragic Results
A portrait of Sigrid Hjerten done by her former husband, isaac Grunewald. Wikimedia

Sigrid Hjerten

Sigrid Hjerten was a Swedish painter of the modernist school who studied with Henri Matisse in Paris beginning in 1909, adapting her use of color as a means of expression. She tried to use both color and form as her means of expressing her emotions on canvas. In 1912 she returned to Sweden and began presenting her work in exhibitions there and throughout Europe. By the beginning of the 1920s, she was well known in Europe as a painter who was radically different for the time in her work. She moved with her husband, also an artist, and children to Paris where she endured his philandering and continued to work.

From 1920 until 1932 Sigrid lived in Paris with her family. She traveled extensively, to the Mediterranean coast of Italy and to various locales in France, to find subjects for her to paint, Her husband, a painter of some repute, made frequent trips back to Stockholm to exhibit his work, but Sigrid, while productive, showed little inclination to exhibit her own. Instead, she began to exhibit various symptoms of illness which were usually of a psychosomatic nature, often in response to her husband’s absences.

In 1932 she decided to leave Paris and return to Stockholm to work and live. While preparing to leave she suffered a breakdown and mental collapse. When she arrived in Sweden she was sent for a time to an asylum where she exhibited symptoms of depression. She recovered for a while and returned to her work but required periodic stays at the mental hospital over the next four years. Her husband left her and they divorced. She received acclaim from the art world and critics for an exhibition which she presented in Stockholm in 1936, but she stopped painting that year.

Her repeated bouts of depression led her to Beckomberg Psychiatric Hospital following a complete breakdown later that year and she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and remained in the hospital. She underwent the treatments of the day, including shock therapy, which had little effect on her illness. Now permanently hospitalized and increasingly ill, Sigrid had little interest in painting or being involved in any other type of therapy. Meanwhile, her doctors were stressing the effectiveness of lobotomy, which was performed at a high rate per capita in the Scandinavian countries.

Whether Sigrid underwent a lobotomy voluntarily or it was forced upon her by doctors at the hospital is uncertain, but she had a prefrontal lobotomy performed in 1948. She died as a result of the operation. Between 1944 and 1966, more than 4,500 lobotomies were performed in Sweden alone, with the majority of them performed on women. Many of them were ordered by medical professionals on those who could not make decisions regarding their care.

10 Horrifying Examples of People Subjected to Lobotomies and their Tragic Results
A marketing shot of Frances Farmer in 1938, taken for a cigarette advertising campaign. Wikimedia

Frances Farmer

Frances Farmer was an American actress who according to Dr. Walter Freeman underwent a lobotomy which he performed and of which he had a photograph of the procedure being completed. The State Hospital at which Freeman claimed the procedure was done denied that it had taken place, as did Farmer’s doctor. When Farmer herself was released from the hospital she demonstrated in subsequent interviews a flat personality and demeanor, totally at odds with her former personality, characteristics consistent with many post lobotomy patients.

As an actress, Frances Farmer enjoyed success in the 1930s in films, although she exhibited a temperamental character and a rebellious streak against the studio system at the time. She also drank consistently and in ever-increasing amounts, leading to her developing a reputation of being somewhat difficult to work with. When not filming in Hollywood she appeared in several Broadway productions. Eventually, in the early 1940s Paramount Studio’s, which had held her under contract since 1935, suspended her after she refused a film role to which she had been assigned. Her marriage had failed as well.

In 1942 she was ticketed for violating wartime blackout regulations, an act which opened a series of events in which she behaved erratically with police officers, judges, and security guards. Jailed, she was transferred to the Psychiatric Ward at Los Angeles General, where she was diagnosed as manic depressive. She was sent to Kimball Sanitarium, where she was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia, for which she was given insulin shock therapy. Eventually, she was placed in Western State Hospital in Washington after a legal battle between her parents and the State of California.

She was released as cured after some months in Western State Hospital, but further misadventures followed, some of them becoming national news due to her fame as an actress. Eventually, she was returned to Western State Hospital, where she remained for nearly five years, and it was there that Dr. Freeman claimed to have performed a lobotomy on her near the end of her stay. The hospital and Farmer’s family deny the operation took place, but numerous allegations of missing records and unauthorized treatments against the hospital and its staff were made following Farmer’s stay there.

After her release and through the 1950s and 1960s she made sporadic attempts at a comeback, achieving some success on television as the hostess of her own show in Indianapolis and occasionally appearing as a guest star on others. Eventually, she quit drinking although she denied ever having been an alcoholic. In the mid-1960s she began exhibiting erratic behavior again and was fired from her show, after being asked on national television a question about her years in treatment. It is believed that the question triggered either suppressed memories, or stress, or both. She died in 1970 of cancer, at the age of 56.

10 Horrifying Examples of People Subjected to Lobotomies and their Tragic Results
Dr. Freeman performs a transorbital lobotomy. Note the absence of surgical masks and gloves. Daily Mail

Howard Dully

Howard Dully was barely twelve years old when he was admitted to a private hospital in San Jose, California for an encounter with a man he had met only a few weeks earlier, Dr. Walter Freeman. Howard was what most would consider being a normal American boy of the time, who would occasionally fight with his brother. He delivered newspapers, and would sometimes disobey his parents, but there was little to indicate any form of mental illness.

It was in December of 1960, a little over a week before Christmas that Howard was admitted to the hospital. The following day he awoke with two black eyes and a severe headache. He later described feeling, “…like a zombie.” Howard had been given a transorbital lobotomy at the request of his parents, more specifically at the request of his stepmother. She was referred to Dr. Freeman, who met with the boy and diagnosed him as being schizophrenic. Freeman’s notes include a passage which reads, “He is defiant at times…He has a vicious expression on his face some of the time.”

Howard Dully was the youngest patient ever to receive a lobotomy at the hands of Dr. Freeman. He recovered from the operation and eventually wrote his autobiography, describing his life both before and after the operation, including his research into the operation itself, having no memory of the surgery. In 2003 researchers for National Public Radio contacted him and requested to make a documentary about his experience and how his life transpired following the operation. They brought with them the medical files and notes which had been prepared and kept by Freeman.

As Dully’s book was awaiting publication in the United Kingdom in 2008 (it had already been published in the United States) he told a British newspaper that his stepmother, who was by then deceased, had manipulated his father into agreeing to the operation, threatening him with a divorce if he didn’t follow through with the procedure. Following the operation and through his teens Howard spent several stints in mental institutions. He became involved with petty crimes and spent some time in jails as well, and for a period of time, he was homeless.

Eventually, Howard Dully straightened out his life and came to terms with the operation which was forced on him before he even became a teenager. There is no way to compare his life to what may have happened had the operation never been performed. Howard himself describes his behavior prior to the lobotomy as being uncooperative, at least in regards to his stepmother. During his lifetime Walter Freeman performed just fewer than 3,500 lobotomies, some of them on patients more than once. His last, in 1967, was the third he performed on Helen Mortensen. She died as a result of the operation. About 14% of all his lobotomy patients died as a result of the procedure. Howard Dully is one of the lucky ones who eventually regained most of what had been taken from him by the procedure.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Lobotomist” By Jack El-Hai, The Washington Post, February 4, 2001

“The gruesome, untold story of Eva Peron’s lobotomy” by David Robson, The BBC, July 10, 2015

“How Rosemary Kennedy went from a vibrant young beauty smiling with brother John F. Kennedy to a feeble spinster” by Caroline Howe, The Daily Mail, September 24, 2015

“The strange and curious history of lobotomy” by Hugh Levinson, BBC News, November 2011

“Robi, Alys”. The Canadian Encyclopedia

“Top 10 Fascinating And Notable Lobotomies” by Blogball, List Verse, JUNE 24, 2009

“Blow Out Your Candles: An Elegy for Rose Williams” by Susannah Jacob. The Paris Review

“Psychosurgery and the child prodigy” by Anthony Feinstein. History of Psychiatry

“Warner Baxter, 59, Film Star, is Dead” obituary from the New York Times. Psychosurgery.org

“The Mad Earl and the wee divorcee” by Anne Chisholm, The Telegraph, July 27, 2004

“Sigrid Hjerten” UK Disability History Month (UKDHM). ukdhm.org

“Frances Farmer: Shedding light on Shadowland”, by Jeffrey Kauffman

“Frances Farmer Was Reportedly Lobotomized & Doubted If She Ever Was Mentally Ill” by Edduin Carvajal, Amo Mama, October 16, 2021

“He was bad, so they put an ice pick in his brain”, by Elizabeth Day, The Guardian, July 13, 2008