Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Montreal Experiments: Brainwashing and the ethics of psychiatric experimentation

Shaan Bhambra
Montreal, Canada


The Allan Memorial Institute (pictured here), where the Montreal Experiments were conducted
as a part of the CIA’s MKUltra project on brainwashing, continues to serve patients of the
Psychiatry Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital. Photo by chrisinphilly5448 on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”1
– George Orwell, 1984


In the aftermath of World War II, the race to become the dominant world power motivated both the United States and the USSR to strive for influence, power, and military strength. In the mid-twentieth century, the brewing Cold War served as the impetus for many of mankind’s modern scientific achievements. From advances in communication technology fundamental to developing the Internet to the push for space exploration, the fear of being outmatched technologically pushed world powers to pursue cutting-edge research. While many research projects led to findings that would define the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many came up short—and abused civilians in the process.

Of the many Cold War research projects, one that remains shrouded in mystery is the Central Intelligence Agency’s MKUltra project. MKUltra began clandestinely in 1953, with the goal of developing “chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in the clandestine operations to control human behavior.”2 To research methods for “brainwashing,” the project defied the ethics of modern psychiatric research, and subjected research participants to high doses of LSD, hypnosis, sexual and verbal abuse, and often torture—all without their knowledge or consent.3,4

Within the larger MKUltra project existed a set of experiments run by the Scottish psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron, which focused specifically on methods to reprogram an individual’s psyche. The experiments, conducted at the Allan Memorial Institute at Montreal’s McGill University, began as an attempt to further Dr. Cameron’s work on “psychic driving,” a method he believed could cure schizophrenia.5

Hundreds of patients enrolled in the project with the hope of curing their depression and schizophrenia under the world-renowned Dr. Cameron.6 Patients were often induced into a chemical sleep for days to months. Then patients would be “depatterned” by electroconvulsive therapy to reduce them to a “vegetable state, from which they would recover to a more healthy state of mind.”7 Often, patients were subjected to two to three daily sessions of 150-volt shocks, each of which lasted a total of six seconds. Without their knowledge or consent, patients were forcibly treated with large doses of LSD and subsequently played sixteen-hour recorded loops of negative messages for ten days, followed by ten days of positive messages.8 For hours on end, patients were subjected to taped messages such as “my mother hates me,” repeated up to 500,000 times per session.9

Through this process of “psychic driving,” Cameron believed he could cure schizophrenia and possibly “re-pattern” the patients’ psyches to a healthy state. If successful, “re-patterning” could reverse mental disorders, but also could produce a method to reprogram and plant ideas into an individual’s memory without them being aware of such ideas being unoriginal or foreign. The theoretical method of repatterning thus could be used for therapeutic or nefarious purposes, depending on the goals of whoever chose to utilize it.

After the experiments, many patients noted that they had lost memories and details of their immediate family10 and were left with permanent amnesia.11 Many returned to their friends and family in a “childlike state”12 and required training to regain continence and toilet-training skills.13 One such patient was Gail Kastner, a nineteen-year-old nursing student who suffered from clinical depression. After repeated electroshock therapy as a test subject, she left the Allan Memorial Institute speaking like a baby, sucking her thumb, and without any of her childhood memories. As a patient and research subject, she was deceived about the intentions, aims, and methods of the study and became incapacitated for the remainder of her life.14 Patients like Ms. Kastner entered the Allan Memorial Institute hoping to be cured, only to have been medically tortured and experimented on.

The story of the Montreal Experiments and MKUltra remind us today of the power of unchecked psychiatric research. More startingly, they demonstrated how easily circumventable the requirements of the medical ethics system were at the time. Despite these violations of medical or research ethics, Dr. Cameron was globally renowned and served as the president of the American, Canadian, and World Psychiatric Associations.15,16,17

While the funding for Cameron’s experiments were clandestinely routed through CIA shell organizations like the “Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology,”18 it later became clear that Cameron was aware of CIA involvement and directly manipulated subjects to further his research. In at least one case, a child was forced to perform sexual acts on government officials. Cameron recorded the acts, and used the recordings as bargaining chips in blackmailing the officials for continued research funding.19

Stunningly, Dr. Cameron provided psychiatric assessment of Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, where the Nuremberg Code for research ethics in human experimentation was first declared.20 At the Doctors’ Trial of the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi doctors were convicted of “performing medical experiments, without the subjects’ consent… of which experiments the defendants committed murders, brutalities, cruelties, tortures, atrocities, and other inhuman acts.”21 Cameron’s experiments strongly parallel those of the Nazis not only in their brutality, but in their shared goal of improving intelligence and military techniques.

Abruptly and unexpectedly, Dr. Cameron suffered a life-ending heart attack while mountain climbing in 1967.22 As the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, MKUltra was officially ordered to be shut down by the CIA. Today, much of what was recorded in the experiments remains classified or has been destroyed by government orders.23 Much of what has been learned about the patients and the Montreal Experiments come from lawsuits against the CIA and legal settlements from the Canadian government. While both the CIA and Canadian government provided compensation to victims of the experiments, neither have admitted liability or issued formal apologies.24 Furthermore, patients who received compensation signed binding non-disclosure agreements, making understanding the full extent of MKUltra experimentation at the Allan Memorial Institute difficult.25

By both historical and modern research ethics standards, the Montreal Experiments were obscenely unethical. The Montreal Experiments represented a form of experimentation which relied heavily on the largely unfounded hypotheses of respected authorities (specifically Dr. Cameron’s “psychic driving” theory). Most importantly however, the Montreal Experiments represent one of the greatest violations of informed consent in the modern era.

Moreover, the events that took place in the Montreal Experiments blatantly ignored the medical axiom of primum non nocere or “first, do no harm.” While it could be argued that the medical benefit of curing patients suffering from schizophrenia or depression could justify some medical risk, there was no justification provided for why such extreme—and arguably sadistic—measures would be suitable. Some patients had enrolled with diagnoses like post-partum depression, and instead were subjected to experiments that rivalled military torture.26

Today, MKUltra remains a shadowy part of American military history and continues to inspire conspiracy theorists who believe that mind-control techniques were successfully developed.27 Regardless of the conclusions of the research, it is certain that the experiments conducted in Montreal egregiously violated research ethics standards. By ignoring requirements for informed consent and without consideration to the risks and damage inflicted onto research subjects, MKUltra and the Montreal Experiments tortured and permanently damaged patients hoping to be freed of their mental disorders.


End notes

  1.  Orwell, 1984.
  2. National Security Archives, “Advisory on Human Radiation Experiments, July 5, 1994, National Security Archives.”
  3. Otterman, American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond, 24.
  4. McCoy, A Question of Torture, 29.
  5. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “MK Ultra: CIA Mind Control Program in Canada (1980) – The Fifth Estate.”
  6. “Brainwashed.”
  7. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “MK Ultra: CIA Mind Control Program in Canada (1980) – The Fifth Estate.”
  8. “1950s–1960s.”
  9. “1950s–1960s.”
  10. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “MK Ultra: CIA Mind Control Program in Canada (1980) – The Fifth Estate.”
  11. “Brainwashed.”
  12. “Brainwashed.”
  13. Farnsworth, “Canada Will Pay 50’s Test Victims.”
  14. “Suit Alleges Infamous MD Ruined Woman.”
  15. Zilboorg, “D. Ewen Cameron m. d.”
  16. “Past Presidents & Board Chairs.”
  17. “World Psychiatric Association Chronology | World Psychiatric Association.”
  18. Linville, “Project MKULTRA and the Search for Mind Control.”
  19. Goliszek, In the Name of Science, 170–71.
  20. Cameron, “Psychiatric Examination of Rudolf Hess.”
  21. Germany (Territory under Allied occupation, 1945-1955 : U. S. Zone), Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, Nuremberg, October 1946-April, 1949, 14.
  22. “Stunning Tale of Brainwashing, the CIA and an Unsuspecting Scots Researcher.”
  23. Kennan, Memoirs, 1950-1963, Vol. 2, 145–67.
  24. Cashore et al., “Trudeau Government Gag Order in CIA Brainwashing Case Silences Victims, Lawyer Says | CBC News.”
  25. Oct 26, October 26, and 2017, “After 60 Years, Ottawa Compensates Daughter of CIA Brainwashing Experiments Victim | CBC News,” 60.
  26. Oct 26, October 26, and 2017, “After 60 Years, Ottawa Compensates Daughter of CIA Brainwashing Experiments Victim | CBC News.”
  27. Knight, Conspiracy Theories in American History, 490.



  1.  “1950s–1960s: Dr. Ewen Cameron Destroyed Minds at Allan Memorial Hospital in Montreal.” AHRP (blog), January 18, 2015. https://ahrp.org/1950s-1960s-dr-ewen-cameron-destroyed-minds-at-allan-memorial-hospital-in-montreal/.
  2. “Brainwashed : The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada – Episodes – The Fifth Estate.” Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2017-2018/brainwashed-the-secret-cia-experiments-in-canada.
  3. Cameron, Donald Ewen. “Psychiatric Examination of Rudolf Hess.” Journal of the American Medical Association 130, no. 12 (March 23, 1946): 790–91. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.1946.02870120036012.
  4. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “MK Ultra: CIA Mind Control Program in Canada (1980) – The Fifth Estate.” Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=990k-5Jm5aA&t=494s.
  5. Cashore, Harvey, Lisa Ellenwood, Bob McKeown · CBC News · Posted: Dec 15, 2017 5:00 AM ET | Last Updated: December 15, and 2017. “Trudeau Government Gag Order in CIA Brainwashing Case Silences Victims, Lawyer Says | CBC News.” CBC, December 15, 2017. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canadian-government-gag-order-mk-ultra-1.4448933.
  6. Farnsworth, Clyde H. “Canada Will Pay 50’s Test Victims.” The New York Times, November 19, 1992, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/19/world/canada-will-pay-50-s-test-victims.html.
  7. Germany (Territory under Allied occupation, 1945-1955 : U. S. Zone). Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, Nuremberg, October 1946-April, 1949. U.S. G.P.O., 1949.
  8. Goliszek, Andrew. In the Name of Science: A History of Secret Programs, Medical Research, and Human Experimentation. First Edition edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
  9. Kennan, G. F. Memoirs, 1950-1963, Vol. 2. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1972.
  10. Knight, Peter, ed. Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia: Conspiracy Theories in American History [2 Volumes]: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2003.
  11. Linville, Tani M. “Project MKULTRA and the Search for Mind Control: Clandestine Use of LSD Within the CIA,” 2016.
  12. McCoy, Alfred. A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Henry Holt and Company, 2007.
  13. National Security Archives. “Advisory on Human Radiation Experiments, July 5, 1994, National Security Archives,” July 13, 2013. https://web.archive.org/web/20130713145805/http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/radiation/dir/mstreet/commeet/meet4/trnsct04.txt.
  14. Oct 26, Elizabeth Thompson · CBC News · Posted:, 2017 5:01 PM ET | Last Updated: October 26, and 2017. “After 60 Years, Ottawa Compensates Daughter of CIA Brainwashing Experiments Victim | CBC News.” CBC, October 26, 2017. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/cia-brainwashing-allanmemorial-mentalhealth-1.4373590.
  15. Orwell, George. 1984. 1 online resource vols. Cabin John, Maryland: Wildside Press, 2011. http://api.overdrive.com/v1/collections/v1L2BaQAAAJcBAAA1M/products/aa1bc9d4-f84d-49a8-a6d8-0cf91b00314d.
  16. Otterman, Michael. American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond. Pluto Press, 2007.
  17. “Past Presidents & Board Chairs.” Canadian Psychiatric Association – Association Des Psychiatres Du Canada (blog). Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.cpa-apc.org/about-cpa/who-we-are/past-presidents-board-chairs/.
  18. “Stunning Tale of Brainwashing, the CIA and an Unsuspecting Scots Researcher.” Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/stunning-tale-of-brainwashing-the-cia-and-an-unsuspecting-scots-researcher-1-466144.
  19. “Suit Alleges Infamous MD Ruined Woman.” Accessed April 14, 2019. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/suit-alleges-infamous-md-ruined-woman/article22402086/.
  20. “World Psychiatric Association Chronology | World Psychiatric Association.” Accessed April 13, 2019. http://www.wpanet.org/detail.php?section_id=5&content_id=7.
  21. Zilboorg, Gregory. “D. Ewen Cameron m. d.” American Journal of Psychiatry 110, no. 1 (July 1, 1953): 10–12. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.110.1.10.



SHAAN BHAMBRA is a first-year medical student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He is interested in medical ethics, global health and policy research, and humanities in medicine. In the future, he hopes that his career in medicine will provide him with a wealth of experiences to draw on in his writing.


Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology

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