How McGill University Pioneered the
Use of Psychological Torture
Imagine being trapped in a small room. Your hands covered in gloves, your sight blocked by translucent glasses, and your head covered by a pillow. You cannot touch, taste, see, smell, or feel. You are totally deprived of your senses. This is the imagery of torture in foreign wars, of espionage blockbusters, of terrible nightmares. It seems hardly something that would occur in Montreal. But it did occur, right here at McGill.
Today, many journalists, doctors, and the general public see the Allan Memorial Institute in Royal Victoria Hospital as the cradle of modern torture, a cradle built and rocked by Scottish-born Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron. To the patients of Dr. Ewen Cameron, our university was the site of months of seemingly unending torture disguised as medical experimentation –– an experimentation that destroyed their lives and changed the course of psychological torture forever.
Cameron’s experiments, known as MK-ULTRA subproject 68, were partially funded by the CIA and the Canadian government, and are widely known for their use of LSD, barbiturates, and amphetamines on patients. In the media, they were known as the “mind control” studies done at McGill and were reported as a brainwashing conspiracy from the CIA and the Canadian government. For journalists, the story was a goldmine. LSD use in a CIA experiment was an angle no sensationalist media could reject, especially in the anti-drug frenzy of the 1960s. However, these studies were much more complex than a Timothy Leary scare in la belle ville.
At its worst, the prolonged periods of sensory deprivation and induced sleep used in the experiments left many patients in a child-like mental state, even years after the experiments were finalized. Even today, remnants of Cameron’s experiments at the Allan Memorial appear in torture methods at places like Guantanamo Bay.
A Tale of Two Doctors
This story begins on June 1, 1951 at a secret meeting in the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Sherbrooke. The purpose of the meeting was to launch a joint American-British-Canadian effort led by the CIA to fund studies on sensory deprivation. In attendance was Dr. Donald Hebb, then director of psychology at McGill University, who received a grant of $10,000 to study sensory deprivation. It would be fifteen years after this meeting at the Ritz that Cameron would disastrously pick up where Hebb left off.
Dr. Hebb paid a group of his own psychology students to remain isolated in a room, deprived of all senses, for an entire day. In an attempt to determine a link between sensory deprivation and the vulnerability of cognitive ability, Hebb also played recordings of voices expressing creationist or generally anti-scientific sentiments – clearly, ideas psychology students would oppose. However, the prolonged period of sensory deprivation made the students overly susceptible to sensory stimulation. Students suddenly became very tolerant of the ideas that they had readily dismissed before. As a history professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Alfred McCoy described in his book, A Question of Torture, that during Hebb’s own experiments “the subject’s very identity had begun to disintegrate.” One can only fathom the cognitive effects of Hebb’s work.
Yet, Hebb was more Dr. Jekyll than Mr. Hyde. According to McCoy’s research, Hebb was described as a gifted man whose ingenuity revolutionized psychology as a science; in fact, seven years after the publication of this research, McGill University and the American Psychological Association nominated him for a Nobel Prize.
Unknowingly, Hebb reached conclusions that would set the agenda for CIA investigation on emerging techniques of psychological torture and interrogation. Five years later, Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, this story’s Mr. Hyde, entered, with an unstoppable will to finish what Hebb had started.
When Cameron started his research, he was the head of the Allan Memorial, which at the time was McGill’s psychiatric treatment facility. Although they were separate legal entities, the Royal Victoria Hospital and McGill were unequivocally bound through their medical professionals. Cameron received a salary from McGill but was medically responsible to the hospital. Besides his work on campus, he was a world-renowned professor and a leading figure in the psychological sciences, serving as president of multiple psychiatric associations.
It was determination and ambition that made Cameron a world-renowned psychiatrist. During his most controversial experiments, he strove to break barriers in the understanding of mental illness, but at the expense of his patients’ well-being. In a report to the Canadian government in the mid 1980s, sources reveal that Cameron was “ruthless, determined, aggressive, and domineering … He seemed not to have the ability to deeply empathize with their [patients] problems or their situation.”
When the whistle blew on Allan Memorial, Cameron’s stern portrait turned into the evil stare of a “mad scientist,” as media reports explained the nature of his research.
MK-ULTRA Subproject 68
Cameron’s research was based on the ideas of “re-patterning” and “re-mothering” the human mind. He believed that mental illness was a consequence of an individual having learned “incorrect” ways of responding to the world. These “learned responses” created “brain pathways” that led to repetitive abnormal behaviour. Dr. Cameron wanted to de-pattern patients’ minds with the application of highly disruptive electroshock twice a day, as opposed to the norm of three times a week. According to him, this would break all incorrect brain pathways, thus de-patterning the mind. Some call it brainwashing; Cameron called it re-patterning.
He held the view that mental illness was also a result of poor mothering. Thus the de-patterning processes rendered the patient’s mind in a child-like state and through re-patterning the patient could be “re-mothered.”
With this framework in mind, Dr. Cameron set out to prove his theory using questionable methods on unwitting patients.
Step 1: To prepare them for the de-patterning treatment, patients would be put into a state of prolonged sleep for about ten days using various drugs, after which they experienced an invasive electroshock therapy that lasted for about 15 days. But patients were not always prepared for re-patterning and sometimes Cameron used extreme forms of sensory deprivation as well.
Cameron described the experience: “there is not only a loss of the space-time image but a loss of all feeling that should be present…in more advanced forms [the patient] may be unable to walk without support, to feed himself, and he may show double incontinence.”
Step 2: Following the preparation period and the de-patterning came the process of “psychic driving” or re-patterning, in which Cameron would play messages on tape recorders to his patients. He alternated negative messages about the patients’ lives and personalities with positive ones; these messages could be repeated up to half a million times.
Kubark, or how the CIA learned to torture
The experiments done at McGill were part of the larger MK-ULTRA project led by Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA. In 1963, the year in which MK-ULTRA ended, the CIA compiled all the research into a torture manual called the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation Handbook. Yes, a “torture manual” that would eventually define the agency’s interrogation methods and training programs throughout the developing world.
The Kubark, which is nowadays readily available, cites the experiments conducted at McGill as one of the main sources of its techniques for sensory deprivation. The document presents some eerie conclusions. An excerpt from the instructions to CIA interrogators reads, “Results produced only after weeks or months of imprisonment in an ordinary cell can be duplicated in hours or days in a cell which has no light, which is sound-proofed, in which odors are eliminated, et cetera,” In essence, the psychological paradigm taken by the CIA would not have been possible without Hebb and Cameron’s research on sensory deprivation and psychic driving.
With names like MK-ULTRA and Kubark, these experiments sound like they are out of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Hebb and Cameron’s work feel so far removed from modern North American life. However, there is strong indication these methods have been used in the United States of America. Following 9/11, the war on terror and the generalized fearmongering that ensued, the Bush administration changed the rules of the game out of concern for homeland security. Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved special practices that included the “use of isolation facility for up to thirty days.”
Only decades later, in the 1980s, did past victims speak about their experiences, and by the nineties, the lawsuits began to pile up. In response, the Canadian government launched “The Allan Memorial Institute Depatterned Persons Assistance Plan,” which provided $100,000 to each of the former patients of Dr. Ewen Cameron. The compensation came from a recommendation by lawyer George Cooper, in which he clarified that the Canadian government did not have a legal responsibility for what happened, but a moral responsibility.
A week ago, I met with Alan Stein, a Montreal lawyer who has handled some of the most notable cases of Dr. Cameron’s patients against the Allan Memorial and the Canadian government.
Stein is an affable and zealous man whose passion for the practice of law became evident after few minutes of meeting him. Sitting at a big table, in what perhaps was the office boardroom, Stein showed me his signed copy of prominent Canadian author Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. On the cover she had scribbled, “To the lawyer who had the guts to take on the shock doctors and win.” Stein’s cases have set important precedents for former patients of Dr. Cameron trying to receive compensation. He has been one of the most important figures in offering Cameron’s victims some peace of mind. To this day, Stein receives calls and emails from people seeking compensation.
Curiously enough, Stein is also a man in full dedication to his work, in the same vein as Hebb and Cameron but with different results. As he recited by memory the many MK-ULTRA cases he has handled and talked about each of them as if they were still happening, I came to notice a connection between these three men. Hebb, Cameron, and Stein, in their respective eras, had the same relentless determination to their occupation. However, what set them apart so vastly was their morals and in a sense, their ability (or inability) to empathize with other individuals.
*Published by the McGill Daily September 2012
Trudeau Government Gag Order in CIA Brainwashing Case
The Trudeau government's quiet non-disclosure payment in March 2017 to the daughter of a now-deceased victim is just the latest development in a decades-old scandal that saw both the CIA and the Canadian government fund brutal science experiments on unsuspecting patients.
Forty years after revelations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency funded brainwashing experiments on unsuspecting Canadians, the Trudeau government is continuing a pattern of silencing the victims,
The federal government is well aware most of the victims and their families do not have the resources to launch individual lawsuits against the government for the mental torture their families endured. The federal government has also rejected claims based on their decision that patients had not been "damaged enough to reach a childlike state".
Between 1957 and 1964, McGill was home to a subproject of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) MK Ultra project. Under Dr. Ewen Cameron’s oversight, researchers conducted studies that subjected unwitting patients to high voltage electroshock therapy, weeks-long drug induced sleep, and large doses of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD). Survivors of the project and their families were forever changed by the lasting effects of this traumatic project and have filed class action lawsuits against provincial and federal governments, as well as McGill—the most recent of which having targeted the Allan Memorial Institute, a part of the Royal Victoria Hospital and the McGill University Health Centre. McGill’s complicity in the CIA’s violation of human rights, regardless of how long ago these atrocities occurred, is appalling. Students must advocate for the affected families and hold the university accountable for failing to release study documents to survivors. Moreover, this project demonstrates the need for medical institutions to maintain high standards and ensure that history never repeats itself.
McGill is morally obligated to rectify its wrongdoings. Survivors of the project deserve the release of all details and information at McGill’s disposal, and the university owes the survivors a public apology. This would act as the first step to make amends for such disregard of the livelihoods of the project’s survivors. Financial compensation is also necessary for the survivors in each of the class action lawsuits.
The MK Ultra project serves as a constant reminder of the power and resources that institutions like McGill possess, and the lack of accountability that often results. Students should apply pressure on the institution to disclose all the details regarding what took place during the experiments and ensure survivors are properly compensated. In particular, students in the Faculty of Law can help make McGill answer for its crimes by providing legal expertise to survivors’ families, upholding and continuing the human rights standards the faculty prides itself on. The McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism works to provide students, professors, and the wider Montreal community with resources to engage with the impacts of the legal system on social justice issues. Students within the Centre for Human Rights are in a unique position to lead efforts to prosecute McGill for actions that do not represent the democratic and humanitarian ideals of the law school.
McGill’s law students are not alone in this challenge. Medical students also have the responsibility of fighting for justice on the part of survivors. McGill is home to Canada’s foremost medical school, and it is critical that McGill’s medical students collaborate with law students to confront the atrocities of the MK Ultra project. McGill has abused this power in the past, and in order to continue to uphold the highest standards of ethics within the institution and among its students, it must address its wrongdoings. Facing the realities of MK Ultra is necessary to produce medical professionals that prioritize their patients’ health over gaining knowledge through unethical means.
McGill’s inaction means that students must step up to continue to voice their condemnation of the MK Ultra project and mobilize to ensure that this act of brutality will never be forgotten or repeated.
Charles Tanny visited the Allan Memorial Institute, a research and psychiatric centre operated by McGill’s Royal Victoria Hospital, in August 1957. He was referred to the Allan after experiencing pain in his face, a condition his family doctor believed was psychosomatic—Charles suffered from trigeminal neuralgia, a neuropathic condition—rather than a psychological one.
Nearly seven decades later, Charles’s daughter, Julie Tanny, is now the lead plaintiff in a class
action lawsuit against McGill, the Royal Victoria Hospital, the Canadian government, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Tanny, along with hundreds of other plaintiffs, alleges that the Allan conducted psychological experimentation on unconsenting patients between 1943 and 1964.
From 1957 to 1964, the CIA funded 89 institutions that researched mind control and brainwashing techniques in a project known as MK ULTRA. Subproject 68, one of 144, took place at the Allan under the supervision of psychiatry professor Donald Ewen Cameron. Tanny’s lawsuit alleges that the experiments started in 1943 when McGill hired Cameron as the founding director of the Allan, years before the CIA’s involvement.
Cameron, whose research focused on the causes of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, believed that mentally ill patients could be “depatterned” through prolonged comas, large doses of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, and extreme electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). After “depatterning”—which resulted in memory erasure, acute confusion, and/or losing bladder and bowel control—Cameron believed patients could be re-taught healthy behaviour through “psychic driving,” a process during which patients were sedated and subjected to tape recordings of a single sentence on repeat. Tanny, who obtained her father’s medical records in 1977, says her dad was put into an insulin coma and kept asleep for 23 out of 24 hours every day, while a background audio recording played endlessly. The content of the recording was not disclosed in his medical records.