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How the CIA's LSD Mind-Control Experiments Destroyed My Healthy, High-Functioning Father's Brilliant Mind

Excerpt from Wall's new book "Healing to Hell": A Cold War scheme to find a mind-control drug for use on hostile leaders destroyed many lives.

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When Daddy turned him down, Isbell must then have ordered surreptitious dosing with the hallucinogen. How was it done? Daddy always thought it was in his food or something given him to drink. The easiest way might have been a tiny speck of LSD in the water pitcher beside Daddy’s bed. Odorless, colorless and tasteless, the chemical was undetectable other than by the mental derangement it caused.

God knows how many others at Lexington were also Isbell’s guinea pigs. To Daddy’s credit—and thanks to his resourcefulness—he caught on quickly enough to take himself out of the “experiment” by refusing all food and drink except for water and canned soup. But he still drank water, so though his dosage might have been reduced, he was probably still getting LSD.

And Isbell was only one of numerous scientists at prestigious institutions who accepted CIA grants to run LSD experiments on human subjects. Many students at various colleges and universities were paid to participate. The first medical centers to receive grants were Boston Psychopathic Hospital (later renamed Massachusetts Mental Health Center), New York’s Mt. Sinai and Columbia hospitals, the University of Illinois Medical School, Isbell’s own center at Lexington operating under the respectable cover of the Navy and national institutes of mental Health (NIMH), and the Universities of Oklahoma and Rochester.

While I knew I had found the answer to questions we had agonized over for so many years, I still found it hard to take in all that I had read. Could an agency of my own U.S. government truly have authorized and funded such reprehensible abuse of a loyal citizen and public servant, a sick man whose only crime was becoming dependent upon a painkiller his doctors had prescribed? Undoubtedly there was much more to be learned, but for the first installment this was more than enough.

I WENT BACK to read the first of the newspaper installments, pounced on the ones that followed day by day, and began to put all the known facts into place. Apparently the first U.S. concerns about behavior and mind control had arisen during the 1940s in the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS) created for intelligence work, about the same time that germany’s SS and Gestapo doctors were experimenting on Dachau prisoners with mescaline, another hallucinogen. In the U.S. the OSS set up its own “truth drug” committee and tested mescaline, barbiturates and scopolamine before settling on a concentrated extract of marijuana as their best hope.

With an eye to persuading the Mafia to help protect New York’s harbor from enemy infiltrators and support the invasion of Sicily, an OSS captain named George White first used the doped cigarettes to loosen up a New York gangster. With that first modest success the U.S. government’s mind-control quest was underway. 

By 1946, revelations about atrocities performed by Nazi doctors impelled the Nuremberg war-crimes judges to draw up an international standard for scientific research that became known as the Nuremberg Code. It stated that no persons could be experimented on without their full voluntary consent, that all experiments should add to the good of society, and that no experiments could risk death or serious injury unless the researchers themselves served as test subjects. The following year brought sufficiently great concerns about the aims of Communist regimes that the U.S. Congress passed the National Security Act. Under one of its provisions the wartime OSS was succeeded by a new organization, the CIA. At the time, former President Herbert Hoover expressed sentiments fairly typical of the national outlook:. . .

We are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed object is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable longstanding America concepts of “fair play” must be reconsidered. We must . . . learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us.