A still of a close-up of hands pointing out features of a dissected brain.

Scientists’ Mind-Body Problems: Lobotomy, Science, and the Digital Humanities

Miriam Posner, Ph.D. will give the annual James H. Cassedy Memorial Lecture in the History of Medicine on Thursday, September 19, 2019 at 2:00 ET in the Lister Hill Auditorium at the National Library of Medicine. Dr. Posner is Assistant Professor, Information Studies Department, University of California Los Angeles. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming lecture.

Circulating Now: We heard from you previously on teaching digital humanities, it’s nice to have you back. Please tell us a little about what you’ve been working on lately?

A portrait.Miriam Posner: I’m glad to be back! Since the last time we’ve spoken, I’ve continued my involvement in digital humanities, and I’ve also gotten involved in a project about global supply chains. I know that last part is perhaps a little unexpected, but some years ago I realized that most of us don’t know very much about how manufacturers organize information in order to deliver products on time. That interest evolved into an article for Logic magazine, a piece for the New Yorker‘s website, and, now, a book project!

My job has also shifted a little bit. For about six years, I served as the coordinator for UCLA’s Digital Humanities program. I’ve now switched over to UCLA’s Information Studies department, where I’m an assistant professor. But happily, I still get to do half my teaching for Digital Humanities, and I’m still a core faculty member there.

CN: Your upcoming lecture “Scientists’ Mind-Body Problems: Lobotomy, Science, and the Digital Humanities” centers on Walter J. Freeman II, MD (1895–1972).  What got you interested in his career?

A signed print of a painting of a man in a suit standing holding a pipe.
Walter J. Freeman II, MD (1895–1972), ca.1945
Alfred Jonniaux, artist
National Library of Medicine #101415449

MP: Way back in grad school, one of my professors, John Harley Warner, showed us a clip from a movie about lobotomy. I was interested in the way lobotomy patients were depicted, and the way that the filmmakers used their faces and bodies as indexes of their mental health. I started researching lobotomy, and that led almost immediately to Walter Freeman, who was the world’s foremost exponent of lobotomy. He is a fascinating guy, and I just ended up in a lobotomy rabbit hole!

CN: Dr. Freeman had a particular interest in visual media, can you talk about how images were important in his work?

MP: One of the things that really surprised me about Freeman was his avid interest in photography. I think it’s fair to say he was obsessed with taking before-and-after photos of his patients. He’d spent significant time and energy tracking them down, years after they’d had the procedure, in order to snap their photos. I thought that was really peculiar and I wondered: Was that just Freeman’s weird proclivity, or did it speak to a larger trend without psychology or neurology? That’s the question I ended up trying to answer!

CN: You have a background in film studies, did you use any audiovisual sources in your research on Dr. Freeman?

A still of a close-up of hands pointing out features of a dissected brain.
Prefrontal Lobotomy in the Treatment of Mental Disorders, 1942
By Walter Freeman and James W. Watts
National Library of Medicine #8800490A

MP: I definitely did, and I owe a big debt to the National Library of Medicine for helping me locate them! It turns out that Walter Freeman was a filmmaker as well as a photographer, and I was able to obtain several of his films that were designed to showcase lobotomy for other doctors. They are not happy viewing, obviously, but they are important artifacts of the period and the procedure.

CN: How do digital humanities methods help deepen understanding of Dr. Freeman’s career and those of other prominent doctors and scientists?

A collage of around 500 black and white images consisting mainly of brain anatomy and graphs.
A mosaic of some of 3,000 images automatically extracted from journal article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry between 1910 and 1970
Courtesy Miriam Posner

MP: Digital Humanities methods helped shift my understanding of what Freeman was up to. I had a theory about the importance of faces within the history of psychiatry—that with the growth of neurology as a subfield, the human face, as an index of mental health, declined in importance. I used Digital Humanities methods to test this, by automatically extracting all of the images contained in the American Journal of Psychiatry and then categorizing them by their contents. To my surprise, the AJP contained very few faces at all, even though I knew psychiatrists were taking patient photos. So what happened to the faces? When I went back to my research notes, I realized that rather than using the photos for publication, psychiatrists were showing them to each other in live settings. That helped me understand that lectures and demonstrations make use of a different rhetoric, and a different type of proof, than academic journal articles. I wrote more about that here.

Watch on YouTube

Miriam Posner’s presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

Miriam Poster’s talk was covered in the NIH Record.


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