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Wall Street Journal Reporter Uses Special Collections to Uncover the Dark History of Lobotomies at the VA

Walter Freeman operates on a patient, circa 1950. From the Walter Freeman and James Watts Papers.The Wall Street Journal has just published a groundbreaking series on the use of lobotomies by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on returned soldiers in the years following World War II. Reporter Michael Phillips combed through boxes of records at the National Archives and here in GW's Special Collections Research Center to uncover the story of the military's use of lobotomies to treat veterans suffering from PTSD and a host of other mental illnesses. Phillips found that the military, desperate for a way to help patients in the era before antipsychotic drugs, used procedures that were not uniformly accepted by the medical establishment. While some patients found relief from debilitating symptoms as a result of their lobotomies, others found their lives irrevocably damaged, or even died as a result of the procedure. The ramifications of these operations continue today for the survivors and their families.

View the Wall Street Journal's multimedia presentation of the story here: http://projects.wsj.com/lobotomyfiles/

The Special Collections Research Center houses the Walter Freeman and James Watts Papers. Walter Freeman, a professor of neurology at GW from 1926-1954, was a strong proponent of the use of lobotomy to treat mental illness. He developed a new transorbital technique for the procedure, and traveled the country demonstrating his technique and performing thousands of lobotomies on patients. Enthusiasm for the procedure in the medical community dramatically decreased in the 1950s as it became clearer that outcomes were mixed for patients and as new drugs came on the market that were able to treat mental illness in ways less permanent and damaging. Freeman was eventually banned from operating on patients in 1967 and died in 1972.

The Special Collections Research Center is proud to have supported this important research. We hope that scholars will continue to make use of the Walter Freeman and James Watts papers in exploring the history of mental health and psychiatric treatment in the United States.

 

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