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Howard Dully – Declining Years

Howard Dully Before His Lobotomy



Howard Dully was the first child born to June and Rodney Dully on November 30, 1948. His mother had two more children before dying of cancer. Howard was deeply affected by his mother’s death. He recalls that he was never explicitly told she died and, therefore, he thought she abandoned him and was “afraid she didn’t love [him].”[1] This feeling of abandonment led to Howard being a very scared boy with frequent nightmares of getting lost and being alone. He would avoid situations that might cause his nightmares to become reality. His father remarried in 1955 to a woman named Lou who had two children of their own, Cleon and George.[2] Howard’s stepmother “ran a tight ship”, and would spank the children for any number of things which she deemed inappropriate .[3] Howard admitted, “To be honest, I deserved some kind of punishment. I was a troublemaker. I’d get restless or bored, and I’d start to misbehave.”[4] Similarly, if a school subject did not interest him, he would perform poorly in the class. Howard claimed that his family and teachers labeled him a bad boy so he started behaving like a bad boy. He grew-up believing that his stepmother’s treatment toward him was unfair. Howard’s stepbrother confirmed that, for some reason, his stepmother treated Howard differently than the other children because she believed his behavior was outside the norm an it was the only way she could deal with him.

Between the years of 1958 and 1959, Lou attended nursing training at the local college. Her exposure to the medical world allowed her to theorize that mental illness afflicted Howard. He would later remark that “one of the first ones [theories] was that I had an extra chromosome.”[5] By 1960, Lou took Howard to see six psychiatrists. Their independent agreement that Howard was “normal” and that “the problem in the house was her” did not please Lou.[6] Then, Lou found Dr. Freeman who did not follow Freudian psychology like the other doctors of his time.  Mrs. Dully complained that Howard, “doesn’t play with toys, rather he uses them as weapons or is destructive with them.”[7] She further cited that he did not learn to use the toilet until he was six years old and would sometimes defecate in his pants after he mastered the toilet.  She reported that “Howard cries more easily than anybody” and that he “seems afraid of everything.”[8] Dr. Freeman recorded that, “From her story, it would seem to be childhood schizophrenia.”[9] Mr. Black, Howard’s weekend caretaker, insisted that it was not Howard who was ill, but the environment Howard was in was not good for his mental stability. He claimed that, on weekends when he and Howard were alone, Howard was “easy to talk to.”[10] Mr. Dully did not support Lou’s impression of Howard either but he did state that, “his performance is so variable as to be a constant source of puzzlement.”[11] After meeting with Howard four times, Dr. Freeman could not find anything wrong with him.

An official diagnoses did not occur until months later when Lou claimed that she feared for herself and for her family’s safety. Howard was brought in for another interview during which Dr. Freeman noted,

“He [Howard] says that he recently had the experience of hearing somebody in his room rather angrily talk at him; he turned on the light and nobody was there. He doesn’t remember the words but he was very alarmed. In regard to talking to himself he says he just talks to himself; he doesn’t answer any spirit voice. He has a certain fascination with license plate numbers and also with words like “spring” that have a number of different meanings.”[12]

Based on this self-assessment, Dr. Freeman admitted Howard to the hospital for his transorbital lobotomy on December 15, 1960.

Howard Dully During His Lobotomy

Howard Dully During His Lobotomy

Howard awoke from his operation having no idea what had happened.  He writes that he was in a fog, “I don’t remembering being in pain. I don’t remember being unhappy. I don’t remember convalescing.”[13] The fog, which Dr. Freeman referred to as the echo period, was a typical symptom for patients. In follow up interviews, family members reported that Howard still behaved poorly as evidenced by his teasing the dog. It was also noted that Howard used to be interested in fixing mechanical things, but he no longer had a passion or the energy to repair  things. On a visit to the Dully house, Dr. Freemen reported that “Mrs. Dully is not an affectionate sort of person nor demonstrative” and, in an attempt to make life more pleasant for Howard, Dr. Freeman advises the family to be more supportive.  On a return visit he noticed, “a great change for the better. He’s [Howard is] much more open; he writes and draws better, is more responsive, smiles, and … is less trouble in the home than he used to be.”[14] In 1963, it was unfortunately reported that Howard had a relapse. Mrs. Dully cited issues such as violence and unwillingness to bathe. In addition, the family suffered financial troubles and turned Howard over to the state for custodial care.  He was placed into juvenile penitentiary, transferred into an asylum, and, eventually, put in a boarding school for the mentally ill. Although Howard was the most capable and mentally aware of the patients, he remained in the system. Only after several years was he released to a halfway house. Freeman’s last report of Howard states that he was

“making a very unsatisfactory adjustments. He has been in jail on several occasions, and is at present on probation. He is conspicuous with his long hair, dirty clothes, and he associates mostly with co-patients of Agnews [an asylum]. … He sponges on his friends, borrows money from friend of the family. Nobody seems to be able to get through to him.”[15]

Howard gained some stability in his life when he married Barbara in 1995 and had two sons, Rodney and Justin, and went to work as a bus driver for the local IBM plant.

Howard Dully After His Lobotomy

Howard Dully After His Lobotomy

Howard’s lobotomy is characteristic of the last series of lobotomies performed before the procedure was discontinued. In fact, by 1967, Freeman performed his last lobotomy on a woman who died during the operation.[16]  Howard’s story is particularly interesting because it occurred during the decline in popular support of psychosurgery. After 1954, psychosurgery was being replaced by the rise of drug therapy. While most hospitals turned toward drug therapy, others used psychosurgery more liberally. This was primarily due to the doctors on staff and high cost of medication. Dr. Freeman, the American pioneer of the lobotomy, remained steadfast in his support of the lobotomies. He stated that, “the results of tranquilizers were much the same in terms of better behavior in chronically disturbed patients”, but that the “lobotomy effect of drugs is superficial.”[17] He believed that the drugs only masked the illness and the only cure was psychosurgery. He further proclaimed that some patients experienced adverse effects to the drugs.  Dr. Freeman sought a place in medical history for the procedure he pioneered. Howard recalled a time after his surgery when he was paraded in front of the medical colleagues of Dr. Freeman at a conference. When Freeman revealed the age of his patients, the audience became outraged. Freeman attempted to prove his worth in the medical field by holding up Christmas cards and exclaiming, “How many Christmas cards do you get from your patients!”[18] This event is commonly referred to in the decline of psychosurgery as it exemplifies medical professionals break from psychosurgery. Freeman faced a changing medical field which was focused on Freudian philosophy and drug therapy. He believed Howard’s behavior was not an indication of his illness, yet he still performed the lobotomy to prove that his technique had a valuable place in the treatment of mental illness.

Other doctors, possibly aware of Dr. Freeman’s indiscriminate use of his procedure, have reported that not all lobotomy patients had schizophrenic disorders, affective disorders, psychoneuroses, and personality disorders. Dr. Kolb reported that other symptoms treatable with lobotomies including “suicidal tendencies, refusal of food, depression, anxiety, hypochondriasis, assaultiveness, destructiveness, impulsiveness, and over activity.”[19] Howard’s terrorization of his little brother and destruction of his brother’s creations might have been a sign of his assaultiveness and destructiveness. His shoplifting might have been a physical manifestation of his impulsiveness. Finally, his crying in the backyard might have indicated that he was depressed. Whether Howard’s lobotomy was a justifiable treatment at the given time or whether it was a desperate attempt by Dr. Freeman to hold onto his prestige is indeterminable. However, what is evident is that Howard’s life after the treatment was remarkably commonplace for those living with a lobotomy.  Howard had similar side effects to that of his 1954 counterparts including, “Lost his zealousness, his ardent enthusiasm, and active interest.”[20] Unfortunately, while some patients might have comfortably recovered in the homes of their parents, Howard was abandoned by his family. This abandonment can be linked to the exacerbation of his condition.  As mentioned in the introduction of this section, many doctors believed that the support or indifference of relatives plays a crucial role in the recovery of the patient. Howard’s lack of support, both before and after his lobotomy, can be directly linked to his behavior.


I highly recommend that you listen to the NPR production about Howard Dully. Howard interviews his father, Dr. Freeman’s son, and other lobotomized patients in order to understand why he received the procedure. The recording is extremely moving and adds a new dimension to study of lobotomies.


[1] Howard Dully and Charles Fleming, My Lobotomy: A Memoir (New York: Crown Publishers, 2007), 11.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] Ibid., 59.

[7] Ibid.,77.

[8] Ibid., 83.

[9] As quoted in ibid., 79.

[10] Ibid., 80.

[11] Ibid., 86.

[12] From recorded reprinted in Ibid., 93.

[13] Ibid., 100.

[14] Ibid., 105.

[15] Ibid., 185.

[16] El-Hai, The Lobotomist, 292.

[17] As quoted in Dully, My Lobotomy, 431-2.

[18] Dully, My Lobotomy, 102-103.

[19]Kolb, “Clinical Evaluation”, 1953.

[20] Allison, “Personality Change“, 222.


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