Paul Robeson’s ECT at the Priory

In September 1961 the American actor Paul Robeson was admitted to the Priory Clinic in Richmond, London, and treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). His son, Paul Robeson junior, has long suspected that the CIA may have had a hand in both his father’s sudden breakdown during a visit to Moscow and subsequent treatment in London (and, later, in New York).

Paul spent nearly two years in the Priory Clinic, with occasional short visits home to the London flat where he lived with his wife Eslanda. It was his wife who organised his admission to the Priory and consented to ECT, his son not learning he had been given ECT until later. Eventually Eslanda was persuaded that the regime of ECT and heavy doses of drugs at the Priory were not doing any good; Paul was removed from the Priory and taken to a clinic in East Germany where he spent several months before returning to the United States in December 1963.

Paul junior’s suspicions about his father’s treatment at the Priory were based both on the fact that his father received a large number of ECT treatments – 54 – and on the fact that his psychiatrist, Dr Brain Ackner, worked at the Maudsley Hospital. The CIA, as part of it’s MKULTRA programme, was funding experiments on the use of intensive ECT and drugs to wipe out memory at the Allan Memorial Institute of McGill University, Montreal, at the very time Paul Robeson was being treated in London. And they also gave funds to Hans Eysenck, a psychologist at the Maudsley Hospital.

After twenty years of trying, Paul junior was finally, in 1998, able to see his father’s medical records from the Priory. This is what he wrote in his biography of his father (The undiscovered Paul Robeson: quest for freedom 1939-1976. John Wiley and Sons Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey)

“The pattern of Paul’s treatments, the frequency of his ECT over a period of twenty months (about ten days apart, averaged over five courses totaling fifty-four), as well as the number and variety of powerful drugs that were administered (antipsychotics, including insulin coma with doses of 10 to 50 units of insulin, antianxiety drugs, and antidepressants), alarmed me when I read the Priory records in 1998. The ECT was administered whenever Paul showed initial signs of depression, to bring him out of it, and immediately following major improvement in his behavior. The powerful antidepressants were prescribed continuously, despite their failure, by the doctors’ admission, to provide any benefit.

I found this combined treatment especially troubling, because it resembled the ‘mind depatterning’ treatment funded by MKULTRA Project, which consisted of ‘intensive electroshocks, usually combined with prolonged, drug-induced sleep.’ The similarity is noteworthy because by early 1962 Richard Helms, the creator of the MKULTRA Project, had been elevated to the post of deputy director of plans and was in direct communication with Hoover concerning Paul’s health.” (page 326)

The drugs prescribed to Paul included: Paraldehyde, Seconal, Meprobamate, Sodium Amytal, Parstelin, Largactil, Tryptizol, Pertofrane, Nardil, Marsalid, Nembutal, Phenobarbitone, Steladex, Carbritol, and Delatestryl.

If Paul Robeson’s 54 ECT treatments had been given over a shorter stretch of time – say one a day for 54 days – then, yes, they would have been suspiciously similar to the treatments being funded by the CIA at McGill University in Canada. There, the Scottish-American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron used the Page-Russell technique of intensive ECT (named after it’s British inventors one of whom, Robert Russell, set up Ectron Ltd to manufacture ECT machines). But Paul’s treatments, which started as soon as he went into the Priory, appear to have been spread out over several courses and a number of maintenance treatments. In the following chapter, Paul Robeson junior suggests a slightly different explanation for his father’s treatment:

“… it appears that the Priory doctors had placed Paul in an inescapable medical trap. It is my opinion that, falsely diagnosed as a shy, introverted, chronic manic-depressive, he was given ECT to temporarily jolt him out of depression, and then sedated in combination with antianxiety drugs to suppress his normal state, which was misperceived as ‘manic’. This cycle was repeated for twenty-three months.” (page 340)

After his return to the United States Paul Robeson made a few public appearances but received further psychiatric treatment (at Gracie Hospital) and never recovered completely. The CIA destroyed most of the records relating to the MKULTRA project in 1973, so it may never be known for certain if they organised a party in Moscow and slipped something into Paul Robeson’s drink or had any involvement in his subsequent treatment at the Priory.

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2 Responses to Paul Robeson’s ECT at the Priory

  1. Pingback: Paul Robeson’s ECT at the Priory | ECT statistics | The Modern [AfroIndio] Times

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