Hundreds of people who were experimented on at the Allan Memorial Institute over the course of two decades are all connected to one man: Dr. Ewen Cameron. In this episode, we look at how Cameron rose to prominence in his field and investigate the surprising origins of his treatment program.
"Madness: The Secret Mission for Mind Control and the People Who Paid the Price" — an investigative series in 5 parts — unravels the shocking history of CIA-funded mind-control experiments. This is Part 2. If you haven't heard Part 1 yet, you can find that here.
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- CBS Radio Workshop's "Brave New World" (1956)
- Audio of Dr. Ewen Cameron's 1955 speech, courtesy of the WNYC archives
- In The Sleep Room: The Story Of CIA Brainwashing in Canada by Anne Collins (1988)
- Psychiatry and the CIA: Victims of Mind Control by Harvey Weinstein (1990)
- A trailer for Eminent Monsters: A Manual For Modern Torture , a documentary film from Stephen Bennett (2018)
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Amory Sivertson: It’s 1956 and CBS Studios is broadcasting an experimental dramatic radio anthology, with the help of an influential thinker.
CBS Radio Host: Ladies and Gentlemen, the distinguished author, Mr. Aldous Huxley.
Ben Brock Johnson: Aldous Huxley writes science fiction, but like much of science fiction, his material isn’t just entertainment, it’s prophecy.
CBS Radio Host: Aldous Huxley’s terrifying forecast of the future, Brave New World.
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World is a fantastic parable about the dehumanization of human beings. Science, technology, social organization — these things have ceased to serve man. They have become his masters.
Amory: In Huxley’s novel, humanity uses a powerful combination of drugs, gadgets, and reproductive science to try to build a society that has eradicated unhappiness and mental illness. It’s a process that starts before new citizens are born. But they’re not born, they’re grown by the batch in a lab.
(from CBS Radio's "Brave New World") Nothing is so unstabilizing to society as unhappy people. We avoid all that by preconditioning our embryos.
Ben: This “pre-conditioning” includes electric shock therapy, playing repeated messages into the brains of sleeping fetuses, and preparing them for a life-long dependency on a special drug, called Soma, that keeps people happy. But of course, spoiler alert, it doesn’t.
Aldous Huxley: The price of liberty and even of common humanity is eternal vigilance.
Amory: It’s hard to miss the warning of a sci-fi story like Brave New World. But right around the same time of this radio drama broadcast, a psychiatrist who was likely inspired by Huxley’s writing was using treatments eerily similar to those dubiously employed in the pages of Brave New World, and making what felt like the opposite argument of Huxley's opus, that modern science, technology and social order were all essential parts of human progress.
Dr. Ewen Cameron (from a 1955 speech): Ladies and gentlemen, I am forbidden to talk until I get the signal that we're on the air...
Ben: This is Dr. Ewen Cameron, speaking to a packed house at the New York Academy of Medicine, in 1955. At this time, Dr. Cameron is one of the pre-eminent psychiatrists in the Western World. And he’s using soaring rhetoric to make the argument that humanity is at the beginning of a fantastic voyage inward.
Dr. Cameron: ...that our next great adventure, that man's next pioneer march, will not be into some new continent for there are none, but will be into that vastly promising world of ourselves...
Ben: Cameron used this language of daring explorers, saying we were about to set sail into the dark, stormy, mysterious sea of the mind.
Dr. Cameron: ...the sea across which none but man has strength to steer. (applause)
Amory: Dr. Ewen Cameron’s goal was to build a utopia through psychiatric treatment. But his methods for this dangerous voyage were disturbingly similar to the experiments of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel.
Ben: Today, we look at how Cameron’s extreme psychiatric experiments were building a dystopia at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, a frightening world where science, technology, and ideas about social organization, had run amok. And we try to understand why.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson
Ben: You’re listening to Endless Thread, the show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.
Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station. And we’re bringing you a special series.
Ben: "Madness: The Secret Mission for Mind Control, and the People Who Paid the Price.
(theme music ends)
Amory: By the time he was addressing a packed house in a New York City auditorium, Dr. D. Ewen Cameron was talking optimistically about new techniques for curing mental illness.
Ben: Cameron had a lot of titles that gave his arguments credibility. He was chairman of McGill University’s psychiatry department, psychiatrist in chief of the Royal Victoria Hospital, and director of the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal — all at the same time.
Amory: He wanted even more recognition, and his plan for getting it was to reverse engineer some of the ideas found in Aldous Huxley’s science fiction.
Ben: In Brave New World, the process of solving mental illness started before birth. In the real world, Cameron was taking adult patients, and trying to revert them to a childlike state by using techniques to quote “wipe their brains clean.”
Amory: De-patterning, he called it. All so that he could start over, and rebuild their psyches from scratch, freeing them from mental illness. One example: a patient named Lou Weinstein.
Harvey Weinstein: Basically reduce him to the status of an infant, not knowing where he was in time-space, and basically just being an organism.
Ben: This is Lou’s son, Harvey Weinstein. No, not that Harvey Weinstein.
Harvey: I usually introduce myself as Harvey Weinstein, the other one, the good one, the older one.
Amory: Harvey Weinstein, the other one, the good one, the older one, spoke to us about his father, Lou, who started having panic attacks when Harvey was just a young teenager, in the mid-1950s.
Harvey: He had sort of episodes of anxiety and went to see a psychiatrist in Montreal and was unhappy with that and was referred at that point to the Allan Memorial Institute under the care of Dr. Ewen Cameron, who was world famous. And my father always wanted the best and Ewen Cameron seemed to be the best.
Ben: But instead of receiving the best — or even the standard — treatment for anxiety, Harvey’s father was de-patterned.
Harvey: So my father was treated at the beginning with barbiturates in enormous amounts. And he was given amphetamines, nitrous oxide, LSD, PCP. This was part of Cameron's attempt to wipe the brain clean.
Amory: Lou Weinstein was kept in continuous sleep for 54 days, during which his blood pressure dropped so severely that Harvey says he lost oxygen to the brain, potentially causing permanent damage. A resident at the Allan also noted that Lou was electroshocked twice a day, to the point of incontinence. They wrote that Lou was “deeply disoriented and out of contact.” To Dr. Cameron, this was a sign of success. Lou was getting closer to a child-like state. To his family, it was a different story.
Harvey: So the first time I saw him, there was a significant change.
Amory: It was Harvey’s first trip to the Allan, in 1956.
Harvey: So it's a memory of a winter day of going up the stairs of this terrifying looking mansion on the top of Mount Royal and going into this lobby, which wasn't very nice, actually, and him coming down barely able to talk, barely awake. He didn't really seem to know me. And his first question was about how his own mother was doing and she had died three years before. So it was kind of a very frightening moment for me, because this man that was there was not the father that I knew.
Ben: The father Harvey knew was ebullient, the life of the party, with a wicked sense of humor, an ambitious, self-made business man who had climbed the social ladder.
Harvey: You know, belonged to the best golf club. And my parents went out twice a week to the best restaurants. And he had this kind of air about him where he was constantly selling everybody on the good life and that he was a manifestation of hard work and the good life.
Amory: When Harvey’s dad, Lou, went into the Allan, the idea was that Dr. Ewen Cameron would solve his anxiety issues with his forward-thinking treatments. That didn’t happen.
Harvey: My father disappeared, and what came home was a shadow, a shell of a man, who basically couldn't carry on a conversation, who had a lot of strange repetitive behaviors, who constantly hummed without stopping. Who slept, I'd say, most of the time. Totally incapable of making decisions, his competency was gone. His world had shrunk down to nothing. He never worked again after age 49. He lost his business. We lost our house.
Amory: Harvey’s father’s experience was far from unique. It was part of a specific treatment regimen that Dr. Cameron had been building for decades. And to understand where that regimen came from, you have to ask somebody who, at least at one time, was living, eating and breathing Cameron’s life story: Anne Collins.
Anne Collins: It's a bit of a trip down memory lane.
Amory: Anne published a book about Cameron back in 1988 called In The Sleep Room.
Ben: She discovered Cameron’s story and spent three years researching this doctor from Montreal who was at the center of a decades-old scandal involving the Allan Memorial and mind control. But Anne had to be careful.
Anne: You know, not cast judgments backwards, but try to understand it from the time and from the pressure in the profession and all of that. So, yeah, it took a while to figure out even what I thought, because at first you just think shock, horror, shock, horror, right?
Anne: He was Scottish born. I don't think he started out in life with any driving ambition to be a psychiatrist.
Ben: D. Ewen Cameron’s family didn’t come from the medical field or even the social sciences. His dad was a presbyterian minister, and they had a rocky relationship. Cameron was on a different path. But his dad did support him, helping to pay for his schooling in Glasgow and London. When his dad died, things got difficult, and Cameron had to find new opportunities.
Anne: The money stopped and he ended up taking a job in an asylum in Brandon, Manitoba. He was the intake psychiatrist there for about seven or eight years. And he had a lot of insight into people who were suffering with various forms of mental illness.
Amory: So here Cameron was, in a rural Canadian province, surrounded by patients who were being committed for crippling psychoses. He wanted to get out. He wanted to make a mark in the world. So he used his time in Manitoba to start experimenting.
Anne: He did have the attitude that to make an omelet, you have to crack a few eggs. He basically tried everything he could, all kinds of experiments, including laying people out and shining red light on them and trying to change their mood that way. All kinds of things that sound like lunatic prospects themselves to try to get himself noticed and try to get himself out of Brandon, which he finally did.
Amory: Cameron got himself to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1936, where he became the director of the research division at Worcester State Hospital. This title was significant to Cameron. Being a “research director” of psychiatry helped him legitimize it as more of a “hard science” — one that involved experimentation and the scientific method. This is an idea he started to talk about a lot.
Dr. Cameron (from 1955 speech): ...I feel that we have now got to give a fuller play to the scientific method as it is applied to human nature...
Ben: Cameron also started dabbling with something that would become a pillar of how he approached his patients with mental illness for years to come, something called coma therapy — comas, brought on by insulin, a hormone which had been recently discovered.
Anne: Insulin coma therapy was they'd take people to death's door, literally shooting them with insulin to the point where they lost consciousness. And I remember once talking to a nurse who had actually worked in an insulin coma therapy ward where they had multiple people twitching and sweating and nearly dying. You had to watch them like hawks, because the theory was as they came up out of that coma, there'd be these periods of lucidity in which you could do effective talk therapy with them or you could get through to them in some way, shape or form, all of which was not true.
Amory: By the time that Cameron was starting to have real resources for doing his own work on mental illness, talk therapy had been a thing for a while.
Ben: Basically, the idea is that a patient and a psychotherapist could engage in regular therapeutic conversation to help the patient change their behavior or tackle personal challenges. But Cameron wanted to speed things up.
Anne: He couldn't take the idea of years of talk therapy. He wanted to accomplish it in weeks if he could. One thing just bloody led to another...
Ben: You can hear Anne Collins starting to develop an opinion there. And after studying Cameron’s life, it was hard not to.
Anne: He just had this incredible, almost undifferentiated ambition. He really wanted to win a Nobel Prize. And there hadn't been very many Nobel Prizes won for psychiatric work.
Amory: In order to get this kind of prestige, Cameron set out to get society's mental health under control. His first big opportunity to do that came in 1943, when he was invited to McGill University in Montreal. There, with help from the Rockefeller foundation, he became the founding director of the Allan Memorial Institute, a mansion overlooking the city of Montreal that would be a cathedral of knowledge, a place for new ideas.
Ben: This was during World War II, when technological and scientific leaps forward, along with advances in brain research, were starting to benefit the field of psychiatry. Cameron wanted to use these leaps forward to great effect at his new institute.
Anne: He was hired because he was actually an improver. He was a guy who thought the doors to mental hospitals shouldn't be locked. He thought that there should be a social aspect to the hospital, there should be a little coffee shop where people could hang out. There should be a hairdressing salon. There should be arts and crafts. There was a whole part of him that was a very progressive force. And he really talked a good game.
Ben: Lofty ideals. But the Allan would also become a place where Cameron’s no-holds-barred quest for human progress would employ techniques later described as psychological torture. More, in a minute.
Amory: Dr. Ewen Cameron was hired by McGill University in the midst of World War II. And World War II, it turns out, had a lot to do with what happened at the Allan.
Ben: Which is something we learned from another Scottish person.
Stephen Bennett: My name is Stephen Bennett. I am a documentary maker living in Glasgow and I've just completed a film I've been trying to make for 10 years called Eminent Monsters.
Ben: Bennett’s film focuses on a whole bunch of ideas about behavior manipulation through recent history, and how some of these ideas have problematic sources, problematic outcomes, and problematic champions. One of whom, Stephen says, is our Dr. Ewen Cameron.
Stephen: I have goosebumps thinking about it because I had such a reaction to this, to think about Ewen Cameron actually is at the seat of what we now realise is state-endorsed psychological torture.
Amory: OK yes that is an intense statement. But let’s dig into why Stephen is making it. Two years after Dr. Ewen Cameron became the founding director at the Allan, he got what turned out to be another big career break.
Ben: Cameron was invited to the trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany. The goal of the military tribunals was to hold Nazi leaders accountable, and Cameron was sent to evaluate a big one, Rudolph Hess, a close confidant of Hitler who had reportedly helped the German dictator write Mein Kampf. Hess was being charged with crimes against humanity, and more. But when his trial began, he started displaying signs of amnesia and paranoia. Cameron and others supported a similar diagnosis.
Amory: Hess would later confess that he had faked his memory loss to avoid the death penalty. Cameron might have been wrong in his diagnosis of Hess, but he had played an important role on the world stage. And Stephen says this was a formative moment for him.
Stephen: You see his writing changes after the Nuremberg Trials. The psychiatrist and the ambitious psychiatrist in Ewen Cameron began to see it was a new world order that he could be part of, where you could make psychiatry at the forefront of huge political decisions and social decisions. So he writes a treatise. And he starts expounding on this idea of a psychiatrist should determine whether you have children, what kind of jobs you should do, your social place in life, from my reading, very close to Naziism.
Amory: When Cameron first went to Montreal in 1943, he was welcomed as a voice advocating for a more humane approach to psychiatry. Some patients just went to the Allan during the day and came back home at night. The Allan was a different kind of hospital. But Bennett says that when Cameron got back from Germany, his game had changed.
Stephen: Now, you’d think the Nuremberg Trials would have opened him up to this idea of how heinous all that was. It seems to have a counter effect on him. And when he comes back, his writing’s darker.
Ben: The Nuremberg Code was being written, the one that tried to give doctors around the world a North Star to avoid the kind of human abuse and horrible experimentation that happened at concentration camps.
Stephen: He's been in Nuremberg Trials, he understands all of these things about world order, understands that you have to have informed consent, patients should understand what they’re being part of. Comes back, reverses all that and says, you don't need to have. I will not tell you what you're part of. I'll you pay for it, but you're not going to know what you're being part of. There is no consent.
Ben: There was another shift as Cameron's work at the Allan continued — his desire to incorporate new technology into psychiatric experimentation started taking shape.
Stephen: And where he started is he saw an advert for how to learn Spanish through the night. And you put a tape recording underneath your pillow continually speaking Spanish at you. And the idea was by the next morning, you'd have learned new words in Spanish.
Amory: This gadget that Cameron saw an advertisement on TV for was called a Cerebrophone. You’d play it at night and it was supposed to teach you things. Yes, it might sound a little weird that a man supposedly dedicated to the scientific method might be swayed by an infomercial.
Ben: But this is also a man who was reading science fiction every night, Cameron liked this sleep teaching idea, a lot. He wanted to use it in his own work. And he did. Anne Collins again.
Anne: The origin story is that there was this one young woman, who he knew had a really tortured and probably sexual relationship with her father. And he was in talk therapy with her trying to figure out how to get her to have some insight into what was going on. And he would tape the sessions.
Amory: One day this patient said something that Cameron thought was interesting. So he played it back to her, over and over. Eventually, she freaked out.
Anne: She ran out of the institute. Instead of thinking, oops, I did something wrong, he thought, aha, I found something that caused a big reaction. And from that little moment came his whole notion that you could play tape loops repetitively at somebody.
Stephen: He saw an American football coach who put headphones into helmets in America. And he loved that idea of how could you get these messages very, very close to the brain in a way that the patient couldn’t remove. And so he experimented with noises coming through pillows, noises coming through the walls and in the ceiling. He then experimented with American football helmets being strapped onto the patients so that it would break all your ability to almost remain sane.
Ben: Once Cameron hit on this idea that playing people’s words back to them could help in the treatment of mental illness, he really went wild with it. He wanted to automate the process, making robotic tape machines that could trigger certain messages that would play over and over. The messages Cameron played typically started out negative. Sometimes, the insults were based on real things patients had said in therapy sessions. Cameron was trying to confront the patient with the thoughts he believed might somehow be at the root of the person’s illness.
(montage of messages that Dr. Cameron played)
“You were a selfish husband...You only thought of your own needs...Do you realize you are a very hostile person?...You’re no good to your family...Why did you kill your mother?...Why did you kill your mother?...You’ve never been a good person. People don’t like you.”
Ben: For Lou Weinstein, they were things like...
Harvey: You're not a good person. You've never been a good person. People don't like you. And then that was called negative psychic driving. And that would be followed by recorded messages which were theoretically positive, which would be the opposite.
Amory: The thinking was that, over time, the patients might actually start to believe some of these more positive things about themselves.
(montage of messages that Dr. Cameron played)
“You are a warm, lovable person...You reach out to others...You can be liked...People are attracted to you because of your sense of humor.”
Amory: Another one of Cameron’s “treatments” for his patients — intensive, repetitive, electroconvulsive therapy, is also eerie in how it’s echoed in Aldous Huxley’s sci-fi.
(from CBS Radio's "Brave New World") Alright Nessus, pull the lever! Now we just need to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock...
Amory: Where babies being prepared for society are shocked in order to associate certain ideas with pain.
(from CBS Radio's "Brave New World") Henceforth, books and flowers will be associated in their minds with loud, unpleasant noises and electric shock...
Ben: To say that Cameron was mixing and matching a cocktail of treatments and fringe ideas from sci-fi might be an understatement.
Stephen: He said, right, we'll do a little bit of this, we’ll do a little bit of that, we’ll do this, we’ll just put on one big plate. We'll do all at the same time and each time we’ll elevate the amount. So it's not just normal electroshock, we’ll give you six times the normal dose of electroshock.
Amory: To be clear, Cameron was far from alone in his field when it came to extreme measures. Psychiatrists had tried lots of things in the name of curing mental illness. They had removed teeth, removed organs, conducted lobotomies, where they’d cut into the prefrontal lobe of the brain in an attempt to curb psychotic or manic behavior.
Ben: Cameron found another idea for his strange mix of treatments from a nearby colleague who was also pushing the envelope, a man named Donald Hebb, a neuropsychologist. Hebb was chair of McGill’s psychology department while Cameron was leading its psychiatry department.
Amory: Hebb was trying to answer a question: what happens to the brain if you remove the senses? He got volunteers to go into an isolation cube for as long as they could take it, usually a matter of days. Their ears and eyes were covered, their hands were put into tubes so that they couldn’t touch anything. The process had disturbing results. People reported feeling detached from their limbs, losing track of time and space, losing their identity. Donald Hebb called it “depersonalization.”
Ben: Cameron called it a good start. He adopted Hebb’s ideas and turned them up to 11. He would isolate people by blunting their senses for weeks on end — without giving them a choice or telling them when it would be over. This is the kind of thing Cameron did to many of his patients, including Lou Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein's father.
Amory: Eventually, he came up with a name for this last phase of the treatment. He called it psychic driving.
Harvey: They didn't feel anything, hear anything, see anything. But what they would hear would be recorded voices, first coming from loudspeakers in the room, then from earphones so that the voices would appear to come from inside the head. And these voices would repeat messages 16, 17 hours a day while he was in sensory deprivation for days and days on end.
Amory: Dr. Cameron’s hope was that the anxiety or depression or psychosis that his patients came in with would be replaced with a clear mind full of good thoughts. They’d be cured, free of mental illness.
Ben: But Ewen Cameron was wrong. He was so very wrong. And for Lou Weinstein and many of Cameron’s other patients, the results were devastating. Cameron could destroy them mentally, disintegrating their identities. But he could not put them back together again.
Anne: How could this possibly have gone on? How could anybody be so simple-minded as to think you could wipe a brain and then reprogram the brain and then everything would be peachy again?
Amory: One thing that’s pretty shocking when learning about Cameron’s techniques at the time, is how open he was about them. De-patterning, psychic driving, this was stuff he was touting at psychiatry conferences and in academic papers. When he presented at the annual meeting for the American Psychiatric Association, here’s what he said about his methods:
Ben (reading from Dr. Cameron’s 1963 APA speech): “Let me simply say that we vastly increased the number of repetitions to which the individual was exposed, that we continued driving while the individual was asleep, while he was in chemical sleep, while he was awake but under hallucinogens, while he was under the influence of disinhibiting agents."
Ben: To understand why there was an appetite and appreciation for Cameron’s work at the time, you have to remember the world people were living in. His extreme regimen of treatments was taking shape in the 1950s. Cameron’s audiences in his field, the families of his patients — everyone — was living in the context of a world that had barely survived one catastrophe, World War II, and was in the midst of trying to survive another, the Cold War and the rise of communism. Cameron connected the threat of communism directly to his work.
Dr. Cameron (from his 1955 speech): Authoritarianism does not mean to let the individual mature. It will never allow the individual to be the final judge of his own conduct.
Amory: Cameron believed that communism and Nazi Germany were both the result of mass mental instability, of society being vulnerable to an evil force.
Ben: But his solution to fighting authoritarianism in the world was, perhaps ironically, a different form of complete control: control of the individual. The only problem was that his prescription for that control didn’t hold up.
Harvey: Ewen Cameron made up all these strange theories to explain what he was doing, none of which had any validity. They were a-theoretical. And it was what he called experiments. But he clearly was not a researcher. He didn't know what he was doing.
Amory: Now obviously Harvey has a deep personal connection here. But he also speaks with some authority when he calls Cameron’s research skills into question. Because Harvey actually became a psychiatrist himself to find out what happened to his father. And he studied at McGill University of all places, while Cameron was still running the psychiatry department.
Harvey: Here's where the unconscious is a wonderful thing. I have zero memories of him.
Ben: Harvey wanted to know why. Why Cameron did all of this to his patients. And why did he keep doing it, even though it didn't seem to help them?
Harvey: Here's a man who actually was, at times quite a good psychiatrist. He's developed this whole community mental health program in Manitoba. He built a huge organization. I mean, McGill psychiatry was at the top of the world in those years, trained dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of residents. He also came from a background in Scotland, Presbyterian background, and seemed like a very moral man. So there's all these kinds of dichotomies in thinking about him as an individual, as a man and as a psychiatrist. And it's frankly kind of hard to put that all together.
Ben: It is hard. Here was a man who advocated for the scientific method to be used more in his field, who wanted a more humane version of treating mental illness. Whose own mind was constantly buzzing with ideas of how to tackle humanity’s biggest problems. Someone who fancied himself a captain on a voyage to explore and understand the rough seas of the human mind.
Amory: But a person whose ambition and work left patients like Harvey Weinstein’s dad broken in its wake. Patients whose families still want to know how this all was allowed to happen, why Cameron’s stated ideals, didn’t fit his treatments at all.
Ben: Part of the answer, is that in fact Dr. Cameron’s work at the Allan, was connected to something much, much bigger.
Amory: Next time...
Stephen Kinzer: Ewen Cameron carried out what we can now guess, in retrospect, were some of the most horrifically brutal medical experiments ever connected to MK-ULTRA. Nothing more or less than medical torture.
John Marks: The CIA was trying to frame this as a L.S.D. testing program.
Stephen Kinzer: LSD could be, as one of his colleagues put it, the key that could unlock the universe.
Stephen Bennett: One thing the CIA is very good at is destroying evidence.