Shell Shocked: Lobotomies for Vets

Leonard Kingcade was a 20-year-old railroad laborer from Snoqualmie when he joined the Army in 1941 to fight the Japanese — on the brutally pounded Philippine island of Corregidor, it turned out. His 60th Coast Artillery unit shot down 54 enemy planes during the relentless bombing and strafing of The Rock by Japanese pilots. In May 1942, with U.S. troops outnumbered in a Japanese invasion, Corregidor’s American commander surrendered.

Kingcade had survived the island battle but not its mind-rattling effects. He was shell shocked, as the military then called post-traumatic stress disorder. As a POW, he was held by the Japanese in a psychiatric facility and later in a prison ward reserved for the mentally ill, where the menu choice was rice with bugs, and where heavy rains washed knee-deep sewage through the compound.

Writer Michael Phillips, recalling Kingcade’s life in a recent Wall Street Journal report, discovered what seemed a happy ending to the private’s disastrous war experience — the 1945 rescue of Kingcade and 1,300 other emaciated prisoners by U.S. troops at Bilibid Prison outside Manila.

But, deemed “mentally incompetent” by military doctors, Kingcade was shipped to a mental facility in the Pacific and then to a hospital in Walla Walla. There, he was labeled “potentially homicidal.” And so the Army doctors went to work.

“Records show,” Phillips writes, “that on 24 occasions over less than a month, doctors injected Mr. Kingcade with insulin to send him into a coma, then brought him out of it again — a treatment thought at the time to help shock mental illness into remission.” It didn’t.

A short time later, eight months after his rescue in the Philippines, Kingcade was discharged from the service and delivered under escort to the American Lake Veterans Administration hospital south of Tacoma. There the VA doctors went to work with electroshock therapy. That, too, failed to harness the effects of Kingcade’s psychosis.

“So on June 6, 1951,” Phillips reports, “VA doctors opened Mr. Kingcade’s skull and performed a prefrontal lobotomy, listing the diagnosis as schizophrenia.” It would be one of more than 2,000 lobotomies on mentally ill veterans at VA hospitals around the U.S., including Seattle and other regional VA facilities, the Journal reveals in its series, The Lobotomy Files.

It was a controversial, learn-as-you-go practice of the 1940s and 50s, never widely publicized and one the Department of Veterans Affairs has tried to forget: records of how the program came about no longer exist. But it was clearly at times an experiment on unknowing patients. Phillips says he was stunned to find details of a casual experiment done at an Oregon VA hospital, where four mentally ill vets were given fake lobotomies to determine if such a procedure had a placebo effect. It didn’t; they were then given actual lobotomies. He also discovered two Virginia vets had been lobotomized for being homosexual.

The VA’s leader of the lobotomy parade was Walter Freeman, the fast-medicine doctor who performed eyelid (transorbital) lobotomies with an ice pick. He is remembered around here as well. His infamy includes showy demonstrations of assembly line lobotomies on civilian patients at Western State Hospital in Steilacoom and other U.S. institutions (in one 12-day stretch in West Virginia, he operated on 225 patients).

His patients (and sometimes victims) included Seattle actress Frances Farmer, whose turbulent life — including battles with her mother and commitment to Western State — was portrayed in the movie Frances starring Jessica Lange. According to Seattle writer Bill Arnold in his book Shadowland, Freeman performed a lobotomy on the temperamental Farmer in the 1940s (though that’s disputed), arguably wielding his brain tool as punishment to Farmer for her anti-social nature (as was done to fictional hero, R.P. McMurphy, in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, played on film by Jack Nicholson.).

Altogether, Freeman notched 3,500 lobotomies during his career, some on children as young as age four. In a 1951 procedure, he killed a patient by shoving a tool too far into the victim’s brain while the good doctor was posing for a photograph. A neurologist rather than a surgeon, Freeman would stand behind his surgical partner, James Watts, and verbally guide him as he inserted the skull tool to slice neural fibers and hopefully cause the brain to form new, saner patterns. Freeman also used electric shock in his practice and ultimately developed the ice pick method, driving the device through the eye-socket bone with a hammer (originally, one from his own kitchen). The methods alarmed Watts who ended the partnership while Freeman continued to tour alone.

Psychotropic medicines have since sent the lobotomy off to retirement, but there were objectors back then to Freeman’s methods — among them a Seattle VA doctor. Writer Philips provided me a copy of Dr. Daniel Blain’s letter from the National Archives, objecting to Freeman’s request to the VA that its doctors also remove a tissue sample from veterans’ brains for later study. “We are extremely afraid of such a procedure,” Blain wrote, questioning both the value and legality of the process.

The forgotten VA operations to cure war madness come off as both well-meaning attempts to do something other than warehouse disabled veterans, and the mass exploitation of a captive audience. Freeman’s son, a retired professor, insists his father’s operations were successful about a third of the time, leading to productive lives of patients. Another third sort of just “got along” afterwards. The final third were simply “failures.”

Leonard Kingcade falls somewhere between the latter two thirds. After his lobotomy, he was eventually released into the guardianship of his mother. When she died, he was unable to take care of himself or their Snoqualmie home, and both fell into disrepair. Bonnie Harms, his 74-year-old niece from Lynnwood, recalls that Kingcade “could do little things around the yard but he couldn’t hold a full-time job or anything.” He died of a heart attack in 1967, changing the tire on his car. His obituary, recalling his service to his country, observed, “He never fully recovered from the treatment he received at that time.” He was 46.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

Journalist and author Rick Anderson writes about crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing.

 
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