The scary days when thousands were lobotomized on Long Island

You have to wonder about Henry Brill's sanity. A Yale-educated psychiatrist, he was director of Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center from 1958 to 1974. During the latter stages of his tenure at the world's largest mental hospital, he was a national leader in the fight against marijuana. Head of the state's Drug Abuse Commission, he railed against the evil impact that marijuana had on people's brains.

Big talk from a guy who, when he was just another doctor at the huge and creepy hospital in West Brentwood, personally oversaw the lobotomies of hundreds of helpless human beings.

About 2,000 Pilgrim patients were lobotomized in the '40s and '50s, according to later reports in the New York Times and elsewhere. Though lobotomies probably were performed at mental hospitals in Central Islip and Creedmoor, among other places, one out of every 25 lobotomies performed in the United States took place at Pilgrim, making it undoubtedly the scariest place on Long Island.

The king of lobotomies was Walter Freeman, another Ivy Leaguer, a Barnumesque neurologist who didn't let his lack of surgical credentials stop him from drilling into the noggins of hapless patients at state hospitals, where officials were always seeking ways to cut costs and control violent inmates.

It's not known whether Freeman performed his infamous "icepick" lobotomies at Pilgrim. Using only electric shock as an "anaesthetic," Freeman would insert an icepick into the corner of an eye of a patient, hammer it in and twist it up and down, severing neural fibers with abandon and turning patients into obedient zombies. The more standard procedure was a prefrontal lobotomy, in which doctors drilled holes in a person's skull and, using little more than guesswork, removed goops of gray matter.

Freeman's technical manual Psychosurgery (regurgitated in an April 1980 Washington Post story) tells the tale of an early '40s prefrontal lobotomy— while it was happening— on a 24-year-old schizophrenic laborer named Frank in a West Virginia state hospital:

Doctor: How do you feel?

Frank: I don't feel anything, but they're cutting me now.

Doctor: You wanted it?

Frank: Yes, but I didn't think you'd do it awake. Oh, gee whiz, I'm dying. Oh, doctor. Please stop. Oh, God, I'm goin' again, oh, oh, oh, ow (Chisel.) Oh, this is awful. Ow. (He grabs my hand and sinks his nails into it.) Oh, God, I'm going, please stop.

Four years after the operation, Freeman and his partner James Watts wrote, Frank's brother "reported that he had lost all sense of time, spending four to six hours a day washing his hands but nevertheless going around with dirty clothes." He later was re-admitted to a state mental hospital. Still, as the Post noted, Freeman and Watts looked at this case as a triumph. "Fortunately, except for drinking too much," they wrote in their book, "he presents no aggressive misbehavior. It apparently requires some imagination, as well as some emotional driving force, to bring about misbehavior at the legally reprehensible level and this the patient is incapable of."

But a lobotomy can be inspiring as well. The most famous person lobotomized at Pilgrim was Allen Ginsberg's mother, Naomi. She was a troubled soul, and Allen himself, at the time a 21-year-old graduate student, authorized Pilgrim to perform a lobotomy on her in 1947. Two days after she died in 1956 at Pilgrim, according to later press reports, he received a letter from her that said: "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight in the window— I have the key— get married Allen don't take drugs. ...Love, your mother." Ginsberg didn't follow his mother's advice— or Brill's warnings— regarding dope, but in 1959, Ginsberg performed his first public reading of Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956). The poem, which brought him worldwide acclaim, reads in part:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village, downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph the rhythm, the rhythm— and your memory in my head three years after — . . .

Tennessee Williams was likewise inspired by his sister, Rose, who collected little glass figurines of animals— a menagerie— before she was lobotomized in a hospital down South. Jackie Kennedy used to visit her husband John's lobotomized sister, Rosemary, at a hospital in Wisconsin. And Frances Farmer, by some accounts, was transformed from film actress to vegetable by an icepick lobotomy perhaps performed by Walter Freeman himself at a mental hospital outside of Tacoma, Washington, in the late '40s.

Lobotomies were highly controversial in the medical community back then, but the press didn't cover that conflict. The horrors were detailed in scientific journals, in typically dry and stilted jargon. In a 1949 article in Psychiatric Quarterly, Brill and two cohorts proudly recounted the 350 prefrontal lobotomies they performed on naughty, troubled Pilgrim patients from May 13, 1947, to July 8, 1949.

Yes, the place was a nut house. But it was the doctors who were nuts for performing the barbaric procedures. The lobotomists were, in part, yielding to pressure to do something about moving long-term patients out of the nation's overcrowded mental hospitals. The directors of places like Pilgrim were always hounded by their staffs to make unruly patients more obedient. In some cases, patients' families pleaded for doctors to perform lobotomies so that the victims— mostly women— would stop worrying so much and do their housework or so they would quit having homosexual thoughts.

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