Radio documentary with the first recipient of an ice pick lobotomy

I love documentaries.  Lately I’ve been exploring Sherlock Holmes episodes and interesting radio documentaries (to try to encourage myself to tackle household chores!).   This is my latest eyebrow-raiser:

On January 17, 1946 a psychiatrist named Walter J. Freeman launched a radical new era in the treatment of mental illness in this country.  On that day he performed the first-ever transorbital or “ice pick” lobotomy in his Washington, D.C. office. His patient was a severely depressed housewife named Sallie Ellen Ionesco.

After rendering her unconscious through electroshock, Freeman inserted an ice pick above her eyeball, banged it through her eye socket into her brain, and then made cuts in her frontal lobes.  When he was done, he sent her home in a taxi cab.

Freeman was convinced he’d found the answer to Sallie Ellen Ionesco’s depression.  He believed that mental illness was related to overactive emotions, and that by cutting the brain he could cut away those feelings.

“My Lobotomy” contains the first-ever interview with Sallie Ellen Ionesco, the first patient to receive a transorbital lobotomy.

Download audio [under ‘Listen’]

The transcript


  1. That is soooooooooooooooooo gross! Reminds me of scenes from Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. bleeeeeeeechh – Hard to believe that was just over sixty years ago!


  2. Hello Howard,

    It’s so interesting to hear your perspective, as a survivor of one of these lobotomies. [ Hear the NPR documentary about Howard here, and view his own website here.]

    One thing I wonder, how have you avoided being eaten up by bitterness about your experience? I could see some might go very much in that direction…what kinds of things have been most useful for you in steering clear of that?

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