October 16, 2021

Frances Farmer Was Reportedly Lobotomized & Doubted If She Ever Was Mentally Ill

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Frances Farmer lived a tumultuous life that included being committed to psychiatric hospitals by her mother and supposedly undergoing lobotomy. It is unclear if she ever experienced the latter, though.

Actress and TV hostess Frances Farmer had a promising career in the entertainment industry for a few years, but everything changed in the 1940s when she faced legal troubles.

Farmer's mother and then-guardian, Lillian, sent her to a psychiatric hospital to avoid jail time. She got better after reportedly undergoing a transorbital lobotomy, but different reports claim that was not the case.

Promotional photo of Frances Farmer and Farmer singing on the "Ed Sullivan Show" | Photo: Getty Images - YouTube.com/TheEdSullivanShow



Born in September 1913 in Seattle, Washington, Farmer studied journalism and drama at the University of Washington, Seattle. In 1935, she saw the Moscow Art Theater in Russia and, after returning to the States, she went to Hollywood.

Once there, she landed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures. In 1936, she appeared in four films and became one of the most promising actresses of the production company.

Promotional photo of Frances Farmer circa 1938 | Photo: Getty Images


"Too Many Parents" was Farmer's acting debut, and during the filming of that movie, she met fellow actor Leif Erickson. They tied the knot later that year but sadly parted ways in 1942. 

"Come and Get It" is arguably one of Farmer's most notable works of 1936 as she portrayed mother and daughter Lotta Morgan and Lotta Bostrom. She also appeared in "Golden Boy," a Group Theatre Broadway production by Clifford Odets.

Unfortunately, her life and career started spiraling out of control in the late 1930s as her increasingly erratic behavior, and alcoholism made her difficult to work with.



Even though she booked roles in big-budget films in 1940, her popularity had already decreased in 1941. The following year, Farmer started having legal issues, and they changed her life forever.

In November 1942, she was arrested for driving under the influence in a wartime restricted area. The actress was ordered to abstain from alcohol to be released. 

She ran away from [Kimball Sanitarium] after about nine months.


She supposedly attacked a hairdresser on set two months later, and police were called to the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood to take her in custody again for violating parole.

At the time, Farmer was naked. Since she resisted the arrest, police had to forcibly dress her, which didn't help her case or her public image (photos of the incident made it to the media).

Frances Farmer resisting arrest in 1943 | Photo: YouTube/Facts Verse


Things didn't improve during her court appearance. When the judge reminded her that she must follow the law and not drink alcohol, she interrupted them and said

"What do you expect me to do? I get liquor in my orange juice – in my coffee. Must I starve to death to obey your laws?"


Even after Farmer's defiant response, she was not sent to jail but released to Lillian, her mother. Lillian sent her daughter to the Kimball Sanitarium in 1943, but she ran away from it after about nine months. 

As a result, Lillian became Farmer's legal guardian and committed her to the Western State Hospital in Fort Steilacoom, Washington, in March 1944.

Promotional photo of Frances Farmer | Photo: YouTube/Facts Verse



The details of what happened to Farmer at the psychiatric hospital, where she spent almost six years, are unclear and even contradicting.

According to "Shadowland," a biographical novel written by William Arnold, she underwent a transorbital lobotomy in 1948. Doctor Walter Freeman, who popularized and perfected the treatment, supposedly was in charge. 

Dr. Freeman kept a record of over 3,400 lobotomies performed during his 28 years as a neurologist and psychiatrist in Washington. It is important to remark that he had no certification in surgery. To knock his patients unconscious, he would use an electroshock therapy machine.


Promotional photo of Frances Farmer | Photo: YouTube/Facts Verse

He was so confident that lobotomy worked that he treated children, adults, and older people with mental illnesses ranging from depression to schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.


When Dr. Freeman met Farmer, she had been at Western State Hospital for five years. After he allegedly performed the procedure, she became "meek and submissive" and frequently did what others told her to do. 

[Farmer] and other women received hydrotherapy and electric shocks to "relax" and keep them quiet.

Promotional photo of Frances Farmer | Photo: YouTube/Facts Verse



According to journalist and researcher Jeffrey Kauffman, the lobotomy never happened. Kauffman explained that Dr. Freeman would have required Farmer's legal guardian's approval to perform the treatment, and Lillian and her family were utterly against lobotomy

Apart from that, archival data showed that Dr. Freeman performed the surgeries at Western State Hospital on three different dates while Farmer was a patient, but she was not among his surgical subjects.


Although Arnold stated in "Shadowland" that Dr. Freeman performed Farmer's lobotomy in private, Kauffman claimed it was hard to believe.

The journalist admitted that Dr. Freeman wanted press coverage of his lobotomies, so he would have never passed on the opportunity to advertise his treatment with a patient as famous as Farmer.

Other professionals at Western State Hospital, including Dr. Charles H. Jones and some nurses, have also pointed out that Farmer was never lobotomized.

Promotional photo of Frances Farmer | Photo: YouTube/Most Actor & Actress Hollywood



Even if Farmer didn't undergo a lobotomy, her time at Western State Hospital was challenging. She once described it as a traumatic and painful experience where she and other women received hydrotherapy and electric shocks to "relax" and keep them quiet.

Farmer told "This Is Your Life" host Ralph Edwards, who deemed her an uncooperative, violent, and mentally ill woman, that she didn't think she was actually sick. She added

"If you're treated like a patient, you're apt to act like one."

Promotional photo of Frances Farmer | Photo: YouTube/Most Actor & Actress Hollywood


Dr. John Nurnberger also disagreed with Farmer's paranoid schizophrenic diagnosis as such patients are not necessarily over-active. Still, Farmer was quite agitated many times during her six years at Western State Hospital. 

After leaving the mental hospital, Farmer resumed her acting career and even hosted "Frances Farmer Presents" from 1958 and 1964. She sadly passed away from esophageal cancer in 1970. 

A few years before her death, she saw her hospital records and asked a doctor if they considered she was ever insane. After they said no, she replied, "Neither did I." 


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