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.