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Or, how McGill pioneered 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.” All of a sudden, the U.S. allowed the use of torture methods developed just up University.



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.


Legacy for McGill University

When the news broke of the true nature of Cameron’s research, McGill University and Allan Memorial were the names on everyone’s lips. A respected educational and research institution had hosted some truly macabre events and shaped the course of torture methods for many years to come.

As Abraham Fuks, Research Integrity Officer and former Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, explained to me in an email, the ethical framework for research has undergone vast changes in the past half a century. Since the seventies and early eighties, Canada and McGill have a regulatory framework for the ethical conduct of research with various mechanisms to ensure its implementation. New rules, stricter journals, and peer reviews are set to uphold medical standards.

Cameron’s research at the Allan Memorial could not be possibly carried out today. With hindsight, it is easy to condemn Cameron, Hebb, and possibly every person associated with the MK-ULTRA project. Although some of these men deserve condemnation, it is important to recognize our own privileged position: A position with more information and a different set of values in which judging the past almost happens by default.

But the legacy lives on, and what Cameron did fifty years ago will always be part of our collective consciousness and identity. Unmistakably, reviewing dark stages of our history exposes the volatility and fragility of the research conducted  not only at McGill, but at all universities. This story highlights the importance of criticism on all types of research done at this institution, be it military, pharmaceutical, or medical: every piece of research will impact lives and perhaps change the course of humanity.

It’s likely that 50 years from now, a bigheaded student journalist with the gift of hindsight will denounce a McGill research project that is currently underway. On that day, we will be accountable for letting it happen.