On a bleak winter’s February day, Anne Margaret White, mother of three small children, was admitted to one of the world’s great teaching hospitals, St Thomas’s, in London. She was thirty-one years old and suffering from post-partum depression, which effects a number of women after giving birth.
Three months later, Anne emerged from the hospital physically and mentally so changed her father thought she was “a zombie”.
The transformation had been achieved by a psychiatrist as respected as the hospital in which he worked.
His name was William Walter Sargant — Will to his friends — who had long been regarded as a ground-breaking physician. His clarion call could be heard through the hospital corridors. “An ounce of phenobarbitone, or some rather more modern tranquilliser, may be worth more than a hundred-weight of persuasive talk”.
But unknown to her, or the hospital, when Anne White became his patient, Sargant was at the forefront of ultra-secret mind-control experiments. He was the British end of the most sinister programme ever approved by the United States government: MK-ULTRA — designed to control all human behaviour.
By that February morning in 1970, the programme had officially been disbanded. One of its key members, Glasgow-born Dr Ewen Cameron, was dead. His Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, Canada, where hundreds of patients had undergone hypnosis, psycho-surgery electroshock and the whole gamut of behavioural control, had become a stain in the name of psychiatry. The US government had apologised for the CIA’s work and promised it would — could — not ever happen again. It seemed that accountability to the democratic system had triumphed.
It had not. Anne White was about to find this out; that MK-ULTRA continued to thrive in the hands of William Sargant.
He continued to use the massive doses of electroshock and drugs as part of his behavioural modification regime.
He was, in 1970, also working closely with Dr Louis Jolyon “Jolly” West, who was chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California in Los Angeles and director of its Neuropsychiatric Institute.
Shortly before Anne White had been admitted to his care, Sargant had made another visit to West. He proposed using Sargant’s previous research to see if it was possible to create a real-life Manchurian Candidate: an assassin whose mind could be controlled.
A Hollywood film in 1959 had shown the Chinese brainwashing an American soldier, captured in the Korean War, being conditioned in Manchuria and sent back to America to kill the President.
The concept had consumed the CIA during the MK-ULTRA era. For West and Sargant it remained a near-obsession.
Using his highly placed connections to the American drug industry, Sargant’s arsenal of mind-altering drugs was unequalled in Britain. He was the first to treat — depending on the definition of “treatment” — patients with Thorszine, Stelazine and Melalaril; anti-depressants like Elavil and Tofranil; anti-maniacs like lithium carbonate. He gave them in combinations.
He scoured the psychiatric journals for news of new drugs. His files included an advertisement from the Archives of General Psychiatry. It showed a dark skinned, thick-lipped young man, fists clenched. Above the figure are the words “Assaultive and Belligerent?”. Beneath the figure is the message: “Cooperation often begins with Haldol (haloperidol). It acts to control assaultive, aggressive behaviour”.
For Sargant drugs were “the chemistry of liberation”. He worked closely with the Eli Lilley Company; Hoffman La-Roche and Geigy, with Merck, Sharp and Dohme; Park-Davis and Company; Smith Kline; French Laboratories; Searle Laboratories.
From them came the drugs supposed to free Sargant’s patients from their demons, anxieties and psychoses. In reality, drugs were often no more than a means to control their behaviour — turning them into “zombie” figures.
Sargant had a vision, bordering on messianic zeal, that he would lead psychiatry into a new world. His weapons would include epileptic form convulsions, induced by the drug penterazol and electroshock; hypoglycaemic coma, produced with insulin; psychosurgery and pre-frontal leucotomy. He outlined his methods in his book, “Physical Methods of Treatment”. It became required reading for his growing number of medical followers in Britain and America.
Yet even they did not suspect Sargant had made a Faustian bargain with Britain’s two intelligence services.
At the outset of the Cold War they urgently looked for new ways to understand, combat and overcome the medical manipulations of Soviet and Chinese psychiatrists. In Sargant they found a willing tutor.
At military bases in Britain, including one at Maresfield, near the south coast resort of Brighton, he conducted drug-related experiments on so-called “military volunteers”. Other drug experiments were performed at Britain’s most secret bio-chemical warfare establishment at Porton Down on Salisbury Plain. Again “volunteers” from military mental hospitals and from military prisons were used.
The CIA sent observers to monitor these tests. Among them was one of its senior bio-chemists, Frank Olson, and Dr Sidney Gottlieb, the overall head of the MK-ULTRA programme.
The three men became close friends. On each trip they visited Sargant’s department at St Thomas’s to study patient records. They also shared with Sargant the latest mind-altering research being carried out at Fort Detrick, the US equivalent of Porton Down.
The eponymous Dr Sargant ruled supreme over the Department of Psychological Medicine at St Thomas’s. He had established the department when he had left — “not without a degree of acrimony” — that other citadel of British psychiatry, the Maudsley Hospital, also in London.
Arriving in St Thomas’s, Sargant found he had to create “my department virtually from scratch in a dark, dank, rat-infested basement, nicknamed “Scatari”.
It had one ward, a fearful place of drugged screams and troubled mumblings. It was here that Sargant, the son of a wealthy and staunchly Methodist family, began to experiment with what he called “heroic doses of drugs used in different combinations”.
He would use these to turn Anne White, a woman desperately seeking his help, into that zombie-like figure her father saw when she emerged from his “care”.
For him, her depression was a chemical event. The invisible, choking substance that leaches out the spirit, he would say, was the result of some electrolytic imbalance in the brain. While he would concede that each depression, like flakes of snow, are not alike, “they are all formed on the template of past experience”.
To eradicate that past — however important it would be for a patient — became the ultimate driving force behind William Sargant’s methods.
Tall and muscular, with a toothy smile that never quite reached his eyes, Sargant had an athlete’s stride, a legacy of his days as a Cambridge University track athlete. His clipped speech and penetrating stare brooked no challenge. His lodestar was that “insanity must be treated by primarily physical methods. Just as the heart can be stimulated by a physical shock and a tumour removed from the brain to give relief, so can mental illness be similarly treated”.
But there was also a darker, secret side to William Sargant. He had a voracious sexual appetite that could not be satisfied by a normal relationship. Even though he had married a delightful woman called Peggy, he had made it clear he wanted no children. Whatever Peggy may have suspected, she never challenged him about the way he regularly disappeared for a weekend.
His destinations were mansions in the depths of the English countryside where those recovering from the dull grey years of WWII had found a new way to satisfy themselves at “swinger” parties. Many were out-and-out orgies — often attended by doctors, lawyers and pillars of their churches. In the seclusion of those country estates, William Sargant found the physical relief for his fantasies.
Refreshed, he would return to London to continue his work — to experiment on Anne White.
Today Anne White, now in her sixties, can look back at a fulfilled career. She was an Examiner for the Medical Council of Canada and Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry at McMaster University Medical School in Ontario. Her area of expertise includes neurology and behavioural medicine. Her long list of awards and research grants are testimony to her work.
A buoyant, vivacious woman, she shows no outward signs of what happened to her when she was admitted into St Thomas’s Hospital under the overall “care” of Dr Sargant.
Her medical history is all too common. After the birth of each of her three children — two boys and a girl — she had developed post-partum depression.
She told me: “After each birth I felt tired all the time even after getting sleep; weepy; worthless as a mother; guilty that I wasn’t doing a good job. Everything was an effort, including looking after the baby. I lost all pleasure in things I normally loved. I couldn’t concentrate to read; I couldn’t listen to and enjoy music. I was intermittently suicidal and nearly always thinking everyone would be better off without me; that I was a drag on my family. There was no light at the end of the tunnel.
As soon as I was pregnant with the second child this situation resolved and, during the pregnancy, I felt good. I had my first two children 13 months apart, then there was a gap of two years before the next one was born. I spent six weeks in hospital with my last pregnancy with high blood pressure. The baby ended up in an incubator for a week. Again I became depressed. But as no one diagnosed the problem, it went untreated for two years.”
At the time she was living in Zambia, an African nation with limited medical facilities. Her own husband (they are now divorced) was a family doctor. After consulting with another doctor, it was decided that Anne should return with the children to her parents in England and be admitted to St Thomas’s.
She had no idea what to expect. But she had been assured that the hospital was at the cutting-edge of medicine. She would be taken good care of. She would get better. With that expectation, she became Dr Sargant’s very trusting patient.
He decided that the young mother was a suitable case for the Sleep Room.
Sargant’s Sleep Room was modelled on the one Ewen Cameron had created in the Allan Memorial Institute as part of the MK-ULTRA programme.
It was at the back of Sargant’s department; a dormitory with six single beds. Each was a foot apart and a low-wattage bulb barely provided sufficient light for the nurses to be able to see.
Injected with Largactil and Seconal to keep her in a drugged sleep, Anne was placed in the Sleep Room. There she received doses of other drugs, Amitriptyline and Nardil.
This was what life was like for her over the ensuing weeks.
“I don’t ever remember being taken to a bathroom or lavatory, although that must have happened. Unfortunately I was so drugged up that every time I stood, I passed out, because my blood pressure dropped into my boots. I don’t remember talking to any patients. I could just see the next bed but no details. When I reached the point that the medication wouldn’t keep me asleep, however much they gave me, I lay in the dark with virtually no auditory input. I think I remember listening to tapes. But I can’t be sure and that may be something which is a false memory.”
It was not a figment of her drugged mind. Sargant, like Cameron, had devised a system where all patients in the Sleep Room received endless instructions on a tape loop. They were played through a recorder placed under each pillow.
In between lying in the Sleep Room, Anne White was wheeled to a treatment room for electroshock.
She later discovered she had been given 26 bi-lateral shock treatments. The recommended number is no more than six.
Each time the electrodes were attached to her temples and the current was turned up to roughly the power required to light a 100-watt bulb — far brighter than all the lights in the Sleep Room.
The only protection to the grand mal seizure that followed was the muscle relaxant drug she received.
When she awoke back in the Sleep Room her head was throbbing with pain. “My mind felt like a blurred, pounding emptiness”.
But the spirit of resistance still flickered in Anne’s mind. She demanded a halt to the treatment.
The nurses in the Sleep Room consulted with Sargant. Suddenly, Anne recalled:
“I was placed in a small room by myself. I was left to my own devices while I went through a week of barbiturate withdrawal. The nurses hardly bothered with me. I was the one who had dared to challenge the system. I felt I was being punished.”
It was only years later, long after she had left St Thomas’s Hospital, that Anne White, the “zombie-like creature” that so shocked her father, began to discover the truth about William Sargant. He was the psychiatrist who had appeared for the defence in the trial of Patty Hearst in 1976, when he had told the court that Patty was “an unwilling victim of brainwashing”.
His judgement could well fit the case of Anne White.
When she went in search, she found her case notes had disappeared from St Thomas’s shortly after Sargant’s death on August 27, 1986. Her efforts to find them have failed. But the memory of what she endured remains as fresh today after three decades.
The story of Anne White, and all those like her, is ultimately a story of terror: of the familiar — a respected hospital — becoming a place of horror.
Anne White believes that the best defence against unethical behaviour is public disclosure and awareness. She believes the time has come for the government to reveal all it knows about still secret research of places like Porton Down.
“The longer the truth is covered up, the closer we are to allowing Sargant’s successors to continue their work”, she told me.
Gordon Thomas’ work includes the five-times nominated Academy Award winner “Voyage Of The Damned”; “Enola Gay”, winner of the Emmy Best Foreign Film prize; “A Bit Of An Experience”, winner of the Monte Carlo Film Festival Critics and Jury’s prizes. His “Underpass” received the Best Original Screenplay submission at the 1999 Cannes Festival.
© Gordon Thomas 2006
Gordon Thomas is the author of Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad. He specializes in international intelligence matters. . Gordon Thomas