William Sargant, deep sleep treatment and ECT

BBC4 is currently showing a 3-part series called The Brain: a secret history. This is what the BBC says about it:

“Michael Mosley embarks on three journeys to understand science’s last great frontier – the human mind – as he traces the history of the attempts to understand and manipulate the brain”.

The first programme in the series, Mind control, featured British psychiatrist William Sargant (1907-1988), who wrote a book about mind control, but is mainly remembered for the evangelical zeal with which he promoted physical treatments in psychiatry – drugs, insulin coma, electroconvulsive treatment (ECT), psychosurgery, continuous narcosis or deep sleep treatment, etc. As head of the department of psychiatry at St Thomas’s hospital (from the 1940s to the 1970s) he conducted experiments on the effects of keeping patients asleep during a course of ECT, using massive doses of major tranquillisers and barbiturate-type drugs, sometimes for months at a time. The programme showed one former patient returning to the ward (now abandoned) where she had been treated. These experiments feature in Dominic Streatfeild’s book Brainwash, the secret history of mind control;  and a website has been set up by survivors of Sargent’s experiments.

Sargant did not set out to be a psychiatrist. But his intended career as a physician came to a halt when his attempts to treat pernicious anaemia with excessive doses of iron were criticised. This set-back led to a nervous breakdown and Sargant spent some time in a mental hospital. In his autobiography Sargant is reticent about this episode, attributing his problems to undiagnosed tuberculosis, but the full story emerged from Ann Dally, who wrote the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Sargant and started a biography of him. Michael Neve had access to Dally’s papers and discussed Sargant’s breakdown in a paper given at a workshop in Germany in 2004.

Sargant’s mantra was expressed in a letter he wrote to The Times towards the end of his career in 1967: “early intensive use of modern physical treatments.” His hatred of anything psychological was approached only by his scorn for controlled trials. In setting up the psychiatric department at St Thomas’s in 1947 he found a system that, with its strict hierarchies and deference to consultants, nurtured and supported his extreme views and offered him the freedom to conduct experiments – however bizarre – on NHS patients without their consent.

Sargant’s “modern physical treatments” had significant risks, which he brushed aside with claims that by “early intensive” treatment he was saving people from the long-stay wards of the old asylums. His department at St Thomas’s was essentially an out-patient department (although he later acquired a ward for his narcosis experiments at the Royal Waterloo Hospital when it became part of St Thomas’s) and his patients often had mild or recent illnesses from which they might have recovered without drastic treatments. If the treatments left patients worse off rather than better, Sargant would attribute this to their lack a “good previous personality”.

Sargant’s methods are set out in a book (co-authored with Eliot Slater) called An introduction to physical methods of treatment in psychiatry. This slim volume ran through five editions between 1944 and 1972. Much of the text remained unaltered but some treatments, for example malaria therapy, were discarded along the way whilst others, for example chlorpromazine and amitriptylene, made an appearance only in the later editions. Insulin coma therapy and unmodified ECT make it through to the final edition, the former because the authors still used it and the latter because they thought there might be occasions on which it was needed.

Deep sleep treatment, or continuous narcosis as the authors called it, makes its appearance in the first edition, but the authors show more enthusiasm for the recent discoveries of insulin coma and convulsive therapies, and leucotomy; continuous narcosis having by 1944 been in use for decades. The authors considered it to be of most use in neurotic patients, and also useful as a means of preventing a voluntary patient from leaving hospital. But by the fifth edition in 1972 they had discovered a new use for deep sleep treatment as a means of keeping patients unconscious during a course of ECT. They described giving this treatment to over 400 patients at St Thomas’s and Belmont in the 1960s. The patients had a variety of diagnoses: schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder,  and chronic tension state. The youngest patient, according to the chapter headed “modified narcosis and combined treatment with ECT and antidepressants”, was 16 years old, but in Eva Frommer’s chapter on the treatment of children there is mention of sleep treatment for children using largactil, stelazine and tryptizol (and also mention of children aged 12 and 14 who had more than 20 ECTs). Sargant and Slater describe how patients were kept asleep for one to 3 months (there is also mention of one patient whose treatment lasted 5 months) and given up to 20 or 30 ECTs. The authors talk about “therapeutic confusion” and say:

“What is so valuable is that they generally have no memory about the actual length of the treatment or the number of ECT used after the treatment is finished…. As a rule the patient does not know how long he has been asleep, or what treatment, even including ECT, he has been given”.

The aim of treatment was to keep the patients asleep for 20 hours out of 24, waking only for meals, physiotherapy and trips to the toilet (with the help of enemas). ECT would be given two or three times a week. The main drugs used by Sargant to induce sleep were chlorpromazine and mandrax. Anti-parkinsonian drugs were also given, barbiturates sometimes used in place of mandrax, or haloperidal added to chlorpromazine. MAOI and tricyclic antidepressants completed the drug cocktail. The authors admitted to five deaths in 679 courses of treatment.

Did any other hospitals adopt the regime that Sargant used at St Thomas’s? Did any psychiatrists read the 1972 edition of his textbook and decide to try out Sargant’s treatment on their own patients? If they did, they didn’t publish anything about it (as far as I know). Sargant retired in 1972. But in a letter to the British Medical Journal in 1973 he refers to ten beds in a nursing home where he was still treating patients with deep sleep treatment and ECT.

In recent years there have been attempts to link Sargant’s experiments with the CIA’s mind control programme, MKULTRA. Sargant certainly had dealings with Ewan Cameron, the Scottish-American psychiatrist whose experiments with deep sleep treatment and ECT were later found to have been financed in part by the CIA. For example, Cameron wrote an introduction to one of Sargant’s books. But both Sargant and Cameron were involved in setting up the World Psychiatric Association and their links may therefore have been normal professional contacts rather than anything more sinister. Their experiments with deep sleep treatment and ECT had similarities, but also differences. Cameron used the Page-Russell technique of intensive ECT (named after the two British psychiatrists who invented it) in which patients are given several shocks at a time on a daily basis. Sargant certainly gave his patients large numbers of ECTs, but generally talks about giving ECT two or three times a week. In his 1973 letter to the British Medical Journal he does however talk about intensive ECT, although he could just be using the term intensive as an adjective to describe ECT, rather than specifically referring to the Page-Russell technique or similar.

St Thomas’s is an NHS hospital, and most of the treatment of Sargant’s patients there was funded by the NHS. But in a 1966 article in the British Medical Journal, under the heading “research possibilities”, Sargant says that his department received no “official outside research support whatsoever. Fortunately, valuable help was obtained from the endowment funds of St Thomas’s and from gifts of money from private lay persons.” It would be interesting to know just who was contributing to the funding of Sargant’s experiments.

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15 Responses to William Sargant, deep sleep treatment and ECT

  1. C M says:

    Your research is of great interest to me, thank you so much. In the BBC Radio 4 broadcast ‘Revealing the Mind Bender General’, Sargant’s work was linked to MI5. It also described how Sargant competed with Cameron to see who could keep patients asleep for the longest time.

    Sargant’s mentor and tutor at the beginning of his career was Charles Wilson, who later became Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician. It was Moran, Cameron and John Reese from the Tavistock Institute who accompanied Rudolph Hess to his trial at the Hague. Hess complained that they were hypnotising him. In fact it was Moran who suggested Sargant take up psychiatry . Moran wrote a book – The Anatomy of Courage, examining the “problem” of soldiers in the first world war not being aggressive enough and what could be done about it.

  2. elizabeth ford says:

    I read Battle for the mind in 1960. It is incredible that ECT is still being adninistered in 2012. I think this isappalling. The resulting memory loss of the treatment is never acknowledged by doctors.

  3. Gillian Dennis says:

    The very same treatment described here used by Dr.William Sargant,was used by Dr.James Willis at Stonehouse Hospital, Dartford Kent in the 1960s:and with terrible results too.

  4. John healy says:

    Is there any record of dr Sargent’s trip to Africa,specifically egypt and Sudan with an interest in Zaar and similar approaches to primitives treatment of Mental problems. His trip was in the 1960s. Perhaps 1965

  5. , says:

    This is what happened to me , when I was 17, around 1971.
    At Park Prewitt Asylum/hospital, just outside Basingsoke in Hampshire

    My psychiatrist was Dr Edwards and at least 5 of us were having this Deep Sleep Treatment at the time..
    About 10 years ago I tried to get my records of my stay in this hospital. I was told there was only a record from my GP of my going in there for depression and having ‘therapy’ but no records from the hospital now exist.

    But I know what happened to me.

    ‘The aim of treatment was to keep the patients asleep for 20 hours out of 24, waking only for meals, physiotherapy and trips to the toilet (with the help of enemas). ECT would be given two or three times a week. The main drugs used by Sargant to induce sleep were chlorpromazine and mandrax. Anti-parkinsonian drugs were also given, barbiturates sometimes used in place of mandrax, or haloperidal added to chlorpromazine. MAOI and tricyclic antidepressants completed the drug cocktail. The authors admitted to five deaths in 679 courses of treatment.

    Yet is says here that on William Sergeant did this so called ‘therapy’ and asked if it happened elsewhere no one has any record of it???

    Well it happened to me and many others and none of us ever met Sargent .

    Yes it was done in other hospitals and nothing directly to do with W Sargent. Just those who followed him
    How can we be heard?
    Will we EVER be heard!
    I have tried but no one hears me. As I was not Sargent’s patient no one seems to believe me.

    Yet there are so many like me.

    i am now 62 years old. I experienced this so called treatment as total abuse even at the time.
    But any protest from me they just increased my cocktail of drugs and knocked me out even more deeply.

    I remember one time being woken up, for the scheduled waking period, 3 hours out of 24 in my case, when I was to supposed to have a bath, a wee, and the toilet – with the help on an enema of course – and forcibly given, bare in mind I was only 17 years old and shy………….one other there, Georgina she was called, was only 15 years old??

    How could they do this to us ?? We were children??

    So that time I was woken to find my psychiatrist DR Edwards bending over me, with his minions. Talking about me as if I was a piece of dirty nothing.

    I realised then I wanted out, that this was crazy, more than crazy .
    I told him so and tried dizzily to get dressed to leave. He called the orderlies – basically the bouncers/security/heavies

    They restrained me, he – Edwards – told me how my ‘lack of co operation’ meant I was not well as yet
    They injected me in my bum with something that knocked me out, so I missed my bath, wee etc so they used a catheter .

    I did not wake up until several hours later when I was given again a cocktail of drugs, including largactile, MAIOs, tricyclics, anti Parkinson’s and many more to put me back into what was an artificial coma.

    Every time they woke me up, 3 hours out of 24, they sent me to urinate, with an escort to make sure I did, gave me an enema, tried to make me eat, every forth day put me in a bath. Bare in mind that with the heavy drugs I was on all this was a nightmare blur.

    And then they when done fed me again the drug cocktail . I recall most times at least 6 pills plus what I then knew as liquid largactil.

    If I would or could not swallow them. They injected me with them.
    This needs to be told, and I am happy to tell it.
    But no one is interested it seems?

  6. Melinda says:

    Yes! this needs to be told. Have you posted your experience at mindfreedom.org? What they did to you was torture. What they did to you was wrong. Edwards should have been put in prison or at least have had his medical license revoked. Same for this Seargant person.
    “If no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the outside observer, its victim is not a victim, and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator; both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other go unseen – the first when the original deed is done and the second when it disappears. This injustice of hiding wrongs fuels the strong urge many victims feel to make known what they have suffered, even if some are hesitant to speak up. Since the public remembering of wrongs is an act that acknowledges them, it is therefore also an act of justice. This holds true at both the personal and broader levels.” Miraslov Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006), page 29.

  7. I have spoken up about what happened to me all my life, But it seems no one is remotely interested.

    • Melinda says:

      I have spoken about what happened to me also. People would rather just forget it happened or is happening. My family — who were perpetrators along with the psychiatrist (Hardin M. Ritchey, who was later fired from the hospital and may have been disciplined by the state board of medical examiners) — my family would never let me talk about it — they wanted me to forget it, not to remind them. I guess they may have felt a bit guilty, but they never acknowledged the harm it did to me.

      Veritee, I am sorry these things happened to you. Have you contacted mindfreedom.org? It is a place you can speak out.

  8. As I am the person above that had DST At Park Prewitt Asylum/hospital, just outside Basingsoke in Hampshire

    My psychiatrist was Dr Edwards
    As above

  9. The website of The Ward 5 Association will soon be available online. The Association was set up by people who were given narcosis treatment at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. The content of the website is being finalised and it is hoped that it will be a up and running within weeks. We know very little about what had happened to narcosis patients in other units and it might be a good idea if everyone who had this treatment in whatever unit was to work together to campaign for recognition of the damage done to them. The website will be available at http://www.w5a.london It will be a few weeks before the website is launched, so please keep checking. We are a small group and all that we can offer at the moment is a place to share information. We don’t have the means to offer individual support and we’re not even sure that the Association is viable so please don’t expect too much from us. In the meantime one of the members can be contacted on susannahphillips6@gmail.com

  10. Catherine Geldart says:

    Continuous narcosis was forcibly given to patients in St. John’s Hospital near Aylesbury. Conditions were so bad one patient, a troubled young woman from a broken home not ‘ill’ even asked for it and it was given

  11. Gill lock says:

    i was given continuous narcosis treatment, totally against my will at Farnborough Hospital, Kent. I was just 16 or17 years old. I remember some of the drugs used were chlorpromazine and chloral hydrate. The latter was like swallowing fire, so nasty was this liquid. It really burned as it went down. I really don’t wish to say anything more about this here. If anyone, who is a genuine survivor or researcher gets in touch I have a lot more to say. I feel I am now one of just a few survivors of the awful treatments of the 1960’s that still has their whole mind intact and has an extremely good memory.

    • Rose says:

      Hi Jill I know it was last year you posted this .I can relate to your treatment I would like to be in touch with you if that’s ok .

  12. Hello Gill Lock,
    I’d like to speak to you about Narcosis. I spent two months in Narcosis at the Royal Waterloo Hospital in London in 1973 when I was 22. I have been in touch with several patients from England and Ireland over the last few years. You can contact me at susannahphillips6@gmail.com

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