From the Archives: A Forgotten Past

By Charlotte Volk


The Allan Memorial Institute, part of the McGill University Health Centre, houses a portrait of a man with no name. Visitors or patients at “the Allan” may glance at the portrait, wondering why it is the only nameless one among the portraits of all the past directors. The truth behind this reveals a dark and unbelievable past, one that spans decades and has ripped through generations.


Between 1957 and 1960, Dr. Donald Ewan Cameron, who was the first director of the Allan Memorial Institute, and remained so for over 20 years, received over USD $60,000 from the CIA to fund his experiments. The project, codenamed MK-ULTRA, had its foundation in Cameron’s previous psychiatric research on the treatment of schizophrenia, which included brutal techniques such as the administration of hard drugs and severe sensory deprivation to erase memories and reprogram his patients’ minds. The CIA was especially interested in this research during the Cold War because of one of its potential applications – mind control.


As the new CBC podcast Brainwashed relates, one of these patients was a pregnant woman named Esther Schrier. Esther, suffering from what was most likely postpartum depression or anxiety after a previous infant loss, arrived at the Allan Memorial Institute hoping that the famous Cameron, who was the head of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, American Psychiatric Association, and the World Psychiatric Association at different points in his lengthy career, would be able to help her. Instead, until she was more than 8 months pregnant, she underwent a series of brainwashing experiments that would become the foundation of modern torture. She was put into medically induced comas for up to 30 days at a time, given huge quantities of drugs such as amphetamines, LSD, and barbiturates, and forced to undergo electroshock therapy up to twice a day. The aim of these treatments was something Cameron called “depatterning”, which aimed to reduce unsuspecting psychiatric patients to an unthinking, child-like state, unable to speak or take care of themselves. The patients were then “reprogrammed” through something called psychic driving: forcing patients to listen to recorded messages up to 20 hours a day through headphones or other devices they couldn’t remove, in the hopes of brainwashing them. Cameron took advantage of the lost patients who showed up at the Allan looking for help and pressured them into continuing his “treatments” until they were too weak to know what was happening anymore.


MK-ULTRA was abandoned in 1964, but the techniques Cameron pioneered became the inspiration for state-sponsored and military torture for decades. The CIA’s training manuals for interrogation and torture made direct reference to the “experiments at McGill University” in their description of potential interrogation methods including pain, narcosis, and sensory deprivation. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in Guantanamo Bay after the 9/11 attacks also drew from these techniques, as did the torture techniques of Honduran military forces trained by the CIA. 


Although Esther Schrier eventually recovered, many other patients did not, spending the rest of their lives haunted by the torture they underwent. To date, the Canadian government has not accepted responsibility or apologized for the horrors that went on at the Allan, even though it was later revealed that the Canadian government was actually providing even more funding for these experiments than the CIA. The government has offered compensation to 77 former patients, who received $100,000 each, but did not accept liability or apologize. Lloyd Schrier, Esther’s child, whom she was pregnant with at the time of her treatments, received nothing. McGill University has also never acknowledged their part in the horrific experiments and have simply removed Cameron’s name from the portrait hanging in the Allan.


Although there are much stricter regulations and procedures for conducting experimental research today, we must never forget the atrocities conceived and executed by one of our own. The engineers, scientists, and doctors being educated at McGill must not let the passage of time erase our dreadful past, lest we hang another nameless portrait on our walls.



Faris, Nick. “‘Electronic lobotomy’: Montreal doctor ruined hundreds of lives with CIA-funded ‘depatterning’ treatment, victims say.” 31 January 2019. National Post. 30 December 2020.

Richardson, Lindsay. “”Their lives were ruined”: Families of MK Ultra survivors planning class-action suit.” 20 May 2018. CTV News. 30 December 2020.

Shephard, Michelle, Lisa Ellenwood and Chris Oke. “Brainwashed: The echoes of MK-ULTRA.” 21 October 2020. CBC News. 27 December 2020.

Velasquez-Buritica, Juan. “MK-ULTRAViolence.” 6 September 2012. The McGill Daily. 27 December 2020.