On This Day … 14 November

People (Births)

  • 1895 – Walter Jackson Freeman II, American physician and psychiatrist (d. 1972).

People (Deaths)

  • 2008 – Robert E. Valett, American psychologist, teacher, and author (b. 1927).

Walter Jackson Freeman II

Walter Jackson Freeman II (14 November 1895 to 31 May 1972) was an American physician who specialized in lobotomy.

Biography and Early Years

Walter J. Freeman was born on 14 November 1895, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by his parents. Freeman’s grandfather, William Williams Keen, was well known as a surgeon in the Civil War. His father was also a very successful doctor. Freeman attended Yale University beginning in 1912, and graduated in 1916. He then moved on to study neurology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. While attending medical school, he studied the work of William Spiller and idolized his groundbreaking work in the new field of the neurological sciences. Spiller also worked in Philadelphia and was credited by many in the world of psychology as being the founder of neurology. Freeman applied for a coveted position working alongside Spiller in his home town of Philadelphia, but was rejected.

Shortly afterward, in 1924, Freeman relocated to Washington, D.C., and started practicing as the first neurologist in the city. Upon his arrival in Washington, Freeman began work directing laboratories at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Working at the hospital and witnessing the pain and distress suffered by the patients encouraged him to continue his education in the field. Freeman earned his PhD in neuropathology within the following few years and secured a position at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., as head of the neurology department.

In 1932, his mother died at the Philadelphia Orthopaedic Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


The first systematic attempt at human psychosurgery – performed in the 1880s-1890s – is commonly attributed to the Swiss psychiatrist Gottlieb Burckhardt. Burckhardt’s experimental surgical forays were largely condemned at the time and in the subsequent decades psychosurgery was attempted only intermittently. On 12 November 1935, a new psychosurgery procedure was performed in Portugal under the direction of the neurologist and physician Egas Moniz. His new “leucotomy” procedure, intended to treat mental illness, took small corings of the patient’s frontal lobes. Moniz became a mentor and idol for Freeman who modified the procedure and renamed it the “lobotomy”. Instead of taking coring’s from the frontal lobes, Freeman’s procedure severed the connection between the frontal lobes and the thalamus. Because Freeman lost his license to perform surgery himself after his last patient died on the operating table, he enlisted neurosurgeon James Watts as a research partner. One year after the first leucotomy, on 14 September 1936, Freeman directed Watts through the very first prefrontal lobotomy in the United States on housewife Alice Hood Hammatt of Topeka, Kansas. By November, only two months after performing their first lobotomy surgery, Freeman and Watts had already worked on 20 cases including several follow-up operations. By 1942, the duo had performed over 200 lobotomy procedures and had published results claiming 63% of patients had improved, 24% were reported to be unchanged and 14% were worse after surgery.

After almost ten years of performing lobotomies, Freeman heard of a doctor in Italy named Amarro Fiamberti who operated on the brain through his patients’ eye sockets, allowing him to access the brain without drilling through the skull. After experimenting with novel ways of performing these brain surgeries, Freeman formulated a new procedure called the transorbital lobotomy. This new procedure became known as the “icepick” lobotomy and was performed by inserting a metal pick into the corner of each eye-socket, hammering it through the thin bone there with a mallet, and moving it back and forth, severing the connections to the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobes of the brain. He performed the transorbital lobotomy surgery for the first time in Washington, D.C., on a housewife named Sallie Ellen Ionesco. This transorbital lobotomy method did not require a neurosurgeon and could be performed outside of an operating room without the use of anaesthesia by using electroconvulsive therapy to induce seizure. The modifications to his lobotomy allowed Freeman to broaden the use of the surgery, which could be performed in psychiatric hospitals throughout the United States that were overpopulated and understaffed. In 1950, Walter Freeman’s long-time partner James Watts left their practice and split from Freeman due to his opposition to the cruelty and overuse of the transorbital lobotomy.

Following his development of the transorbital lobotomy, Freeman travelled across the country visiting mental institutions, performing lobotomies and spreading his views and methods to institution staff (Contrary to myth, there is no evidence that he referred to the van that he travelled in as a “lobotomobile”). Freeman’s name gained popularity despite the widespread criticism of his methods following a lobotomy on President John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary Kennedy, which left her with severe mental and physical disability. A memoir written by former patient Howard Dully, called My Lobotomy documented his experiences with Freeman and his long recovery after undergoing a lobotomy surgery at 12 years of age. Walter Freeman charged just $25 for each procedure that he performed. After four decades Freeman had personally performed possibly as many as 4,000 lobotomy surgeries in 23 states, of which 2,500 used his ice-pick procedure, despite the fact that he had no formal surgical training. In February 1967, Freeman performed his final surgery on Helen Mortensen. Mortensen was a long-term patient and was receiving her third lobotomy from Freeman. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage, as did as many as 100 of his other patients, and he was finally banned from performing surgery. His patients often had to be retaught how to eat and use the bathroom. Relapses were common, some never recovered, and about 15% died from the procedure. In 1951, one patient at Iowa’s Cherokee Mental Health Institute died when Freeman suddenly stopped for a photo during the procedure, and the surgical instrument accidentally penetrated too far into the patient’s brain. Freeman wore neither gloves nor mask during these procedures. He lobotomised nineteen minors, including a four-year-old child.

At fifty-seven years old, Freeman retired from his position at George Washington University and opened up a modest practice in California.

An extensive collection of Freeman’s papers were donated to The George Washington University in 1980. The collection largely deals with the work that Freeman and James W. Watts did on psychosurgery over the course of their medical careers. The collection is currently under the care of GWU’s Special Collections Research Centre, located in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library.

Freeman was known for his eccentricities and he complemented his theatrical approach to demonstrating surgery by sporting a cane, goatee, and a narrow-brimmed hat.


Freeman died, of complications arising from an operation for cancer, on 31 May 1972.

He was survived by four children – Walter, Frank, Paul and Lorne – who became defenders of their father’s legacy. Paul became a psychiatrist in San Francisco and the eldest, Walter Jr., became a professor emeritus of neurobiology at University of California, Berkeley.

Contributions to Psychiatry

Walter Freeman nominated his mentor António Egas Moniz for a Nobel prize, and in 1949 Moniz won the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine. He pioneered and helped open up the psychiatric world to the idea of what would become psychosurgery. At the time, it was seen as a possible treatment for severe mental illness, but “within a few years, lobotomy was labelled one of the most barbaric mistakes of modern medicine.” He also helped to demonstrate the idea that mental events have a physiological basis. Despite his interest in the mind, Freeman was “uninterested in animal experiments or understanding what was happening in the brain”. Freeman was also co-founder and president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology from 1946 to 1947 and a contributor and member of the American Psychiatric Association.


Freeman, W. & Watts, J.W. (1942) Psychosurgery: Intelligence, Emotion and Social Behaviour Following Prefrontal Lobotomy for Mental Disorders. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Robert E. Valett

Robert E. Valett (22 November 1927 to 14 November 2008) was an American psychology professor who wrote more than 20 books primarily focused on educational psychology. He earned the distinguished psychologist award from the San Joaquin Psychological Association and was a president of the California Association of School Psychologists.

Early Life and Education

Robert Edward Valett was born in Clinton, Iowa on 22 November 1927. His father, Edward John Valett, worked for the railroad as a pipe fitter and his mother, Myrtle (née Peterson), was a saleswoman. Valett attended Clinton High School while also achieving the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America. During World War 2, he served in the US Navy Medical Corps. He then did his undergraduate work at the University of Iowa and George Williams College. Valett went on to earn an MA from the University of Chicago (1951 ) and an (Ed.D.) in educational psychology from the University of California in Los Angeles.


Valett was a professor of psychology at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Ca., and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and taught psychology from 1970 to 1992 at California State University, Fresno where he was named Professor Emeritus. He authored several books on learning disabilities, child development, dyslexia and attention disorders/hyperactivity. He received the distinguished psychologist award from the San Joaquin Psychological Association in 1982 and served as president of the California Association of School Psychologists from 1971 to 1972.

Personal Life

In 1950, Valett married Shirley Bellman with whom he had 5 children. He died on 14 November 2008, in Fresno, California.


  • The Remediation of Learning Disabilities – Fearon Publishers 1967.
  • A Psychoeducational Inventory of Basic Learning Abilities – Fearon Publishers 1968.
  • Developmental Task Analysis – 1969.
  • Programming Learning Disabilities – Fearon 1969.
  • Modifying Children’s Behaviour: A Guide for Parents and Professionals – Fearon 1969.
  • Determining Individual Learning Objectives – Lear Siegler/Fearon 1972.
  • A Basic Screening and Referral Form for Children with Suspected Learning and Behavioural Disabilities – Fearon 1972.
  • Learning Disabilities: Diagnostic-Prescriptive Instruments – Lake Pub Co 1973.
  • Self-actualisation: A Guide to Happiness and Self-Determination – Argus Communications 1974.
  • The Psychoeducational Treatment of Hyperactive Children – Fearon 1974.
  • Affective-Humanistic Education; Goals, Programs & Learning Activities – L. Siegler/Fearon Publishers 1974.
  • Humanistic Education: Developing the Total Person – Mosby 1977.
  • Developing Cognitive Abilities: Teaching Children to Think – Mosby 1978.
  • The Dyslexia Screening Survey: A Checklist of Basic Neuropsychological Skills – Lake 1980.
  • Dyslexia, a Neuropsychological Approach to Educating Children With Severe Reading Disorders – Fearon Pitman, Costello Education 1980/
  • Valett Inventory of Critical Thinking Abilities (VICTA) – Wiley 1981.
  • How to Write an I.E. – with John Arena 1989.
  • The Valett Perceptual-Motor Transitions to Reading Programme – with Shirley Bellamn Valett, Academic Therapy Publications 1990.
  • Spiritual Guide to Holistic Health and Happiness – Authors Choice Press 1997.

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