Was William Sargant an evil CIA doctor?

Last April the Daily Mail ran a story under the headline: My electric shock nightmare at the hands of the CIA’s evil doctor. The article was written to tie in with the publication of the autobiography of Celia Imrie, a British actor known for her roles in the film Calendar Girls and the TV series Dinnerladies, Cranford, etc. In the book, The Happy Hoofer, Imrie describes her childhood as a doctor’s daughter in Sussex and her admission, aged 14 (in 1966 or 1967) to St Thomas’s Hospital/The Royal Waterloo Hospital in London, where she was treated for anorexia by William Sargant. Hence the headline.

I wrote about William Sargant in a post last January. Sargant is controversial figure in psychiatry and his experiments with narcosis (also known as deep sleep treatment or DST) and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) at St Thomas’s left several people dead and others with memory loss, but is the headline justified? Was Celia Imrie really treated by an evil CIA doctor?

Considering that Sargant is frequently described as a CIA doctor, there is remarkably little evidence to actually link him with the CIA. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved with them, but it would be nice to see some evidence to go with the headlines about evil CIA doctors. The Daily Mail article goes on to say: “Now, more than 20 years after his death, Sargant is notorious for his work for MI5 and the CIA, particularly its covert MK-ULTRA mind control programme”. But does this notoriety have any basis in truth?

Dominic Streatfeild investigated the claims in his 2007 book Brainwash: the secret history of mind control and concluded that although Sargant did some work with M15 there is nothing to link him with the CIA’s MKULTRA experiments. Although evidence of a link to the CIA may emerge in the future, Sargant’s experiments could equally well be explained by his desire for the fame and fortune that would come with making a great psychiatric discovery. Writing in the Psychiatric Bulletin in 1995, psychiatrist Geoffrey Wallis recalls Sargant at a psychiatric conference in 1957:

“I vividly remember Dr William Sargant, then in his charismatically influential heyday and surrounded by admirers, enthusing in the hotel lounge that there was about to be a breakthrough”.

Sargant and his co-author Eliot Slater elaborated on this “breakthrough” in the concluding comments to the chapter on modified narcosis the 1972 edition of their textbook, An introduction to physical methods of treatment in psychiatry:

In the combined treatment, the hypnotic drug and the ECT together generally induce considerable memory loss for the period under narcosis. As a rule the patient does not know how long he has been asleep, or what treatment, even including ECT, he has been given. Under sleep, in the acute or in the chronic patient, one can now give many kinds of physical treatment, necessary but often not easily tolerated. We may be seeing here a new exciting beginning in psychiatry, and the possibility of a treatment era such as followed the introduction of anaesthesia in surgery. Our aim, surely, must be to get the suffering patient well again, if possible with little after-memory of what may have been a long and otherwise distressful illness and treatment”.

Celia Imrie has little memory of her treatment. She knows she underwent ECT but wonders in the newspaper article if she might have been in the narcosis ward as well, and have been left with no memory of it. But it would seem that records, as well as memories, were destroyed and she is left with no way of knowing, unless someone who was involved with her treatment remembers her and is prepared to come forward.

In the first, 1944, edition of the textbook on physical methods of treatment in psychiatry, Sargant and Slater had described the use of continuous narcosis in the following terms:

“It will be valuable when patients are too anxious and unco-operative to be put on more radical forms of therapy, as for instance the despressive patient who may occasionally be so anxious that even the not very exciting ritual of electric convulsion therapy is too frightening to be borne. In such a patient sleep treatment will reduce the excessive anxiety and permit a more rational attitude towards the treatment of choice; occassionally an unexpected recovery with sleep therapy will render further treatment superfluous. It is a measure which, when other forms of persuasion are unavailing, will keep the agitated indecisive patient in hospital on a voluntary basis, and so avoid the blow to family and patient of certification”.

The use of continuous narcosis with ECT turned out not have been the breakthrough Sargant was confidently expecting as his enthusiasm for the treatment was not widely shared, but neither do the methods of 1944 appear to be entirely a thing of the past, according to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 18 June. The article describes how at least two patients in New South Wales, Australia, were kept continuously under anaesthetic for two days in order to give them ECT.

“A Sydney psychiatrist, Antonella Ventura, prescribed the lengthy treatment for a patient with extreme mania, behavioural disturbance and aggression. According to a presentation abstract Dr Ventura co-wrote for the Royal Australian College of Psychiatrists conference last year, the patient had been paralysed and unconscious, requiring ventilation for a period of more than 48 hours and had been looked after in intensive care”.

The article does not say how many ECTs were given during this time. William Sargant’s patients were kept asleep rather than anaesthetised; they breathed without assistance and were woken at intervals to eat and drink and be taken to the toilet. At St Thomas’s they would be woken up to be given an anaesthetic for ECT.

This entry was posted in 1960s, ECT in the UK, ECT worldwide. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Was William Sargant an evil CIA doctor?

  1. Gillian Dennis says:

    Dr.James Willis also used the “deep sleep treatment at Stonehouse Hospital in Dartford Kent in 1960s having learnt it from Dr.William sargant.

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