Walter Freeman, the world’s foremost proponent and practitioner of lobotomy, was also an obsessive photographer. He almost invariably took photos of his patients before and after surgery, often tracking them down years after the operation to capture their images. These cross-country trips to photograph patients, which Freeman called head-and-shoulder hunting expeditions, consumed the physician during the last years of his career.
What do we do with an archive like this? Its contents can tell us volumes about the medical epistemology that made lobotomy thinkable. But how can we avoid replicating Freeman’s own rhetorical moves, in which the photographs were mobilized as evidence during scientific presentations?
I’ll describe the visual rhetoric that defined the scientific moment from which lobotomy emerged, and demonstrate some digital methods I’ve used for placing them in context. Against the background of this history, I ask, what is the contemporary digital scholar’s responsibility for working with, writing about, and displaying images of human beings in distress?
Miriam Posner is the Digital Humanities program coordinator and a member of the core DH faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles. She teaches in the DH program, advises undergraduate and graduate students, and ensures the smooth development of this interdisciplinary program. Prior to joining UCLA, Posner was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Emory University Library’s Digital Scholarship Commons. A member of the executive council of the Association for Computers and the Humanities, Posner frequently writes and speaks on digital humanities, as well as on the history of technology, particularly the history of medical imaging. Her book, Depth Perception, on twentieth-century medical filmmaking, is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. Her Ph.D., from Yale University, is in Film Studies and American Studies. You can read more about Miriam on her website.