The Allan Memorial Institute is located in an ominous mansion, formerly known as Ravenscrag, that looms over Rue McTavish at the foot of Mont Royal. The sinister stone building, said to be haunted, is befitting of the grisly experiment that occurred within its walls from 1957 to 1964: Project MK ULTRA. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mind control project used unconsenting patients to test the effects of sensory deprivation, LSD, electroshock therapy, and other methods of controlling the human psyche. Although it may sound like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel, these experiments were conducted at McGill, with devastating effects on the patients involved.
Project MK ULTRA was a large-scale attempt by the CIA to research behavioural modification and the effects of certain drugs and psychological treatments on the human mind. It consisted of 144 different subprojects related to the control of human behaviour, which were carried out in 89 different institutions, including universities. The experiments within each subproject varied in both their purpose and techniques—but many, including those undertaken at McGill, involved invasive and unethical research on unwitting human subjects.
The events of Project MK ULTRA are cloaked in mystery, as almost all of the records of the project were destroyed in 1973 by Richard Helms, the director of the CIA at the time. Several boxes of records were subsequently uncovered in 1977, revealing sparse but important information regarding the nature of the experiments. Most of the information regarding the project comes from these files that were recovered, and from the Senate hearings that were held and which included interviews with former CIA employees involved in MK ULTRA. During the hearings, these members admitted to the purpose of the project, as well as the unethical nature of several of the experiments.
Media outlets in the 1960s and ’70s jumped on the story when it was revealed, sensationalizing facts. This, combined with the few records that are still in existence, make the truth surrounding MK ULTRA murky.
Despite the shrouded nature of the project and the hazy details surrounding it, it is certain that unethical experiments were performed at many institutions, including McGill University.
The project began as an attempt by the US to devise mind control and interrogation techniques following the Korean War. American soldiers were returning home from Chinese captivity seemingly ‘brainwashed’—disillusioned with American values and overtaken by communist thoughts. The CIA began to believe that foreign powers possessed methods of mind control that had allowed them to brainwash American prisoners of war.
“We had become pretty well convinced after the experience of the brainwashing problems coming out of China, that it was the techniques of the interrogators that were causing the individuals to make confessions [...],” said John Gittinger, a CIA psychologist, in a testimony from a 1977 joint Senate hearing.
The CIA was initially interested in discovering a ‘truth serum.’ At the time, many believed in the possibility of a drug to use in interrogations that would eliminate all inhibitions, and prompt subjects to speak without reticence. The CIA first experimented with the use of LSD with little luck, and later delved into different types of psychotherapy and hypnosis in the hopes of discovering the secret of mind control.
Out of the research and experiments that were undertaken within hospitals and laboratories, those that took place at McGill, known as MK ULTRA subproject 68, were perhaps the most notorious. Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron was the head of McGill’s Allan Memorial Institute when the experiments were performed, and the main researcher implicated in the project.
According to information from the 1977 Senate hearing, most of the researchers and doctors involved in Project MK ULTRA, including Cameron, were not informed of the project or of the fact that the funds for their research originated from the spy agency. In order to conceal the source of money, the CIA created research foundations, such as the Human Ecology Fund, to act as fronts for funnelling MK ULTRA research funds. The CIA then worked through such organizations to target researchers with projects that were of interest to them in developing techniques of interrogation or human behaviour control.
For the CIA, Cameron’s research was potentially the answer they had been looking for.
Cameron was a leading figure in psychiatric research, and was working as a professor in Albany when he was invited to Montreal to become the first director of the recently founded the Allan Memorial Institute, which housed the psychiatric department of the Royal Victoria Hospital, and was affiliated with McGill University.
Cameron’s research was focused on discovering the root causes of mental illnesses and finding ways to cure them. He believed that the manifestation of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, was the result of repeated patterns of socially unhealthy behaviour in patients, and concluded that it could be cured by ‘depatterning’ these unsound habits. The depatterning was meant to break down the patient’s personality completely in order to rebuild it from scratch.
According to the Canadian government, approximately 80 patients at the Allan Memorial Institute underwent depatterning. The treatment involved putting patients into a prolonged period of sleep for several days through the administration of barbiturates (drugs that depress the central nervous system) and LSD. This was followed by massive doses of electroshock therapy over the course of several weeks, ultimately reducing patients to a childlike state.
“The method consisted essentially of the administration of two to four electroshocks daily to the point where the patient developed [...] acute confusion, disorientation, and interference with learned habits of eating and bladder and bowel control,” Cameron wrote in an article published in the journal, Comprehensive Psychiatry, in 1962. “The patient may [also] show [...] loss of a second language or all knowledge of his marital status.”
Once patients’ brains were depatterned, Cameron believed that they would be able to be re-taught proper forms of interaction and behaviour. This practice, which Cameron dubbed ‘psychic driving,’ involved subjecting patients to repeated audio recordings in order to reinforce positive messages within their minds. Patients would typically be sedated with muscular paralytic drugs during this process, and they could be exposed to hundreds of thousands of repetitions of a single statement throughout the treatment.
Even in the 1950s and ’60s, when the experiments were conducted, the practices utilized by Cameron were extreme. Electroshock therapy was commonly used at the time to treat depression; patients would typically receive the treatment two to three times per week. Cameron’s administration of electroshock to patients multiple times a day over long periods of time, however, was undoubtedly outside of the norm.
“He was an authoritarian, ruthless, power hungry, nervous, tense, angry [...] not very nice,” Dr. Elliot Emmanuel, one of Cameron’s former colleagues, said of the doctor in a 1980 interview with CBC.
Whether or not Cameron believed that his physically and psychologically devastating treatments were helping to cure his patients’ mental illnesses is up for debate, but the unethical nature of his treatment methods is apparent.
Standards for ethical research during the 1950s and 60s were not nearly as stringent as they are today. Regulations for experimentation on human subjects nowadays are strict, and require adherence to a very specific set of rules.
“The consent process has to be submitted for review by the Ethics Boards and this is usually done through a consent form,” said Ilde Lepore, Ethics Officer for the Faculty of Medicine at McGill. “The consent form must contain all the elements so that the participant is clear on what they are being asked to do, that they are made aware of any possible risks involved, and that they are informed as to how their confidentiality will be maintained and how their information will be used.”
Although the norms of experimentation and research were different during the time that Cameron was undertaking these treatments, there is evidence that he was aware of the immoral nature of his actions.
Cameron attended the Nuremberg Trials following WWII, which tried German doctors for war crimes committed in concentration camps. Many of the accusations put forward at the trials involved allegations of unethical research on unconsenting subjects within the camps. Cameron was therefore well acquainted the necessity of informed consent in experimentation and research on human subjects. He actively denounced the atrocities committed by the German doctors during the war, and supported the Nuremberg Code, which laid out specific rules about what was legal when conducting human experiments.
Since then, even more standards have been put in place governing research on human subjects.
“The Belmont Report outlined the basic principles for ethics review for the Ethics Boards: Respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. All of the research guidelines and regulations today are founded on these three principles,” said Lepore.
It was not until the 1980s that Cameron’s patients began to come forward, stating that they had been subjected to extreme and unusual forms of psychotherapy, including the processes that Cameron described as depatterning and psychic driving.
All of the patients who were alleged victims of Cameron’s practices reported devastating mental and physical results for years to come. Many recounted extreme memory loss, feelings of isolation, anxiety, and no improvement of their initial conditions.
Several patients filed lawsuits against the Canadian government to receive compensation for the harms that were inflicted by the procedures. The Canadian government was initially reluctant to provide settlements for Cameron’s patients, rejecting several appeals for compensation by victims. Following settlements by the US, as well as impetus by the public to acknowledge the harms done, the Canadian government finally agreed to provide compensation on compassionate and humanitarian grounds beginning in the late 1980s. When settlements were at last accorded, the government did not acknowledge legal responsibility for the experiments, even though reports state that the Canadian government also funded part of Cameron’s work. In the end, Cameron’s patients were given the right to $100,000 in restitution as part of the Allan Memorial Institute Depatterned Persons Assistance Plan.
The lawsuits were an important victory in the public acknowledgement of the personal damages that resulted from the experimentation of Project MK ULTRA; however, the incident was largely swept under the rug, without being thoroughly recognized by the Canadian government or by McGill.
Senators at the joint hearing on Project MK ULTRA in 1977 discussed the role of universities in housing the research for the project, and what implications this would have on their reputations and those of the researchers involved.
There was some disagreement over whether the CIA should inform the universities implicated in the project. However, they concluded that scientists who had unwittingly taken part in MK ULTRA research should be informed of this fact. With regards to the universities, the senators from the 1977 hearing decided that presidents of all the universities involved should be notified of their involvement in the project in order to take the appropriate steps to adapt research procedures and ensure that such events did not recur in the future.
“The importance of preserving the independence of our research areas and the communities seems to me to be a very fundamental kind of question about the protection of the integrity of our universities,” Senator Edward Kennedy said at the hearing.
The committee concluded that the information incriminating the universities would be widely circulated in the media, and that the universities should be given the adequate information to know the truth about what was being reported.
There was also concern about how this information would affect the reputations of the universities. Senators and ex-members of the CIA disagreed on whether or not presidents of the implicated universities should be prompted to publicly disclose the truth regarding their involvement in the project.
“Just because [...] a university is going to be embarrassed is not a reason to classify information,” Kennedy said at the time. “I would certainly hope that [the universities] would feel that they could make a public statement on it.”
The committee present at the hearing ultimately decided that the presidents of all of the universities involved should be informed, and that it would then be up to them to disclose the information to the public or not.
“We can devise a way of notifying these institutions on a private basis so that they can make their own decision whether their equities are best served by their announcing it publicly or their attempting to maintain it [private],” Admiral Stansfield Turner of the CIA said at the hearing.
Unsurprisingly, university presidents have not been eager to disclose or discuss this information publicly, as it represents dark and troubling parts of their institutions’ histories. McGill’s archives provide no mention of Cameron’s involvement in Project MK ULTRA, instead focusing simply on his “high reputation in the psychiatric field.”
There are bleak aspects of McGill’s history. Abuses of power, combined with changing social contexts and ethical standards, have grown over time into nightmarish stories of our university’s past. Only by acknowledging and discussing past wrongdoings will we be able to reconcile and learn from these mistakes.