The Lobotomist

The Lobotomist

Societies understanding of mental illness and its treatment has changed radically over the past 60 years; The Lobotomist takes us back to a time when mental health issues were seen as a crippling taboo, and salvation was offered, and warmly received, in the form of a new miracle cure – the lobotomy. The Lobotomist will be a gothic horror about the greatest pioneer of the lobotomy, Dr Freeman; taking impetus from his life and work. The narrative will also explore the stories of those impacted by the practice, in particular referencing the story of Howard Dully, one of the youngest ever recipients of the trans-orbital lobotomy.

Dr Freeman was the world’s greatest pioneer of the lobotomy; he brought the procedure to America in 1936 and his work was widely celebrated. In 1945 he revolutionised the lobotomy with the invention of the trans-orbital lobotomy, a variation that reduced the time required to just ten minutes and enabled the procedure to be performed anywhere with no anaesthetic and no surgical scrubs. The trans-orbital lobotomy was performed by inserting an ice pick like instrument into each eye socket and moving it around so as to sever the connections in the frontal lobe of the brain. Dr Freeman made the lobotomy an accessible procedure, he had an enormous passion to do good and at the time his invention was widely heralded as a medical miracle.

The popularity of Dr Freeman’s procedure grew rapidly as Dr Freeman widely promoted the diverse application of the operation: treating the severely mentally ill as well as people suffering depression, neurosis and headaches. Dr Freeman was as famed as his procedure; he became a sort of travelling showman; wearing a wide brimmed hat and carrying a cane and brief case in which he kept his gold plated instruments. He drove around the country in his “lobotomobile”performing up to 110 lobotomies a week.

However, public support for Dr Freeman’s work was short lived; with the invention of anti-psychotic drugs public opinion swiftly turned against the procedure, considering it cruel and archaic. This shift in public opinion rapidly undid his life’s work; within the span of his lifetime Dr Freeman moved from celebrated medical saviour to monster. This back flip in public sentiment challenged everything that Dr Freeman had worked towards. In 1968 Dr Freeman sold his house and drove around the country visiting former patients in an effort to prove to himself that he had done something worthy with his life, that he had done good for his patients, to prove that his soul and his conscious were still intact.

The Lobotomist will also reference the story of Howard Dully, who was diagnosed by Dr Freeman as suffering from childhood schizophrenia at age 12 and was subsequently submitted to a trans-orbital lobotomy. After decades of recovery Dully finally began to piece his life back together. In his 50’s, Dully began to research what had happened to him as a child and speaking with his family about how they had consented to the procedure.

The Lobotomist will springboard from these stories of Dr Freeman looking at him as a man with the greatest of intentions who ultimately did terrible things. Whilst drawing reference from these true stories, the play will be highly fictionalised, incorporating a level of abstraction which allows an exploration of the juxtapositions of historical truth and delusional visions of self.

Image Steve McAfee



The Lobotomist underwent a one week development period in September 2012 with the support of the Sydney Theatre Company’s Rough Draft program.

A further week of development was undertaken in October 2012 with the support of NIDA

The Company is currently exploring opportunities to further develop the work.