January 1, 2014

St Thomas’s is a world class teaching hospital. It stands on the south bank of the Thames in central London. The NHS and the doctors, nurses and administrators who work there are justifiably proud of St Thomas’s reputation. But there is a much darker story about St Thomas’s that they’d rather you didn’t know. This is the story of Dr William Sargant a consultant psychiatrist at St Thomas’s who savagely abused his patients for more than 10 years ably assisted by other psychiatrists and the renowned Nightingale Nurses. It is also inconceivable that the hospital’s administrators who doled out enormous amounts of money to fund Dr Sargant’s so called “work” with the mentally ill and who organised the doctor’s and nurse’s rotas didn’t know exactly what was going on.

Sargant set up the narcosis  ward which has become better known as “the sleep room” in 1964 at the nearby Royal Waterloo Hospital. In this small dark room patients who hadn’t given their consent for treatment were kept in a drugged sleep for 20 hours a day for up to three months at a time. They were woken only to be fed, washed, be taken to the lavatory and to have ECT treatment. Accounts from the few doctors and nurses who have come forward describe a small cramped room with an overpowering smell of unwashed bodies. Patients have said that they remember sleeping on low divan like beds but another account by Celia Imrie, the British actress who was young patient on the main ward, describe narcosis patients sleeping on the floor on mattresses.  Doctors and nurses from St Thomas’s Hospital kept the patients asleep, administered huge amounts of drugs and gave helpless patients dozens of ECT treatments.

Sargant got away with it and St Thomas’s and the NHS have never been called to account because there is still an unthinking  and overwhelming prejudice against the mentally ill in Britain. This isn’t a question of patients not being believed. Dr Sargant helpfully left details of his experiments and the justification for them in the papers he wrote and the books he published. But somehow the reality of what it meant to be subjected to Dr Sargant’s hideous treatments seemed to have escaped a lot of people.

All this happened a long time ago. The worst abuses occurred between 1964  and 1973. You’d think that by now the patients who were assaulted in “the Sleep Room” by Sargant and his colleagues might have lived long enough to see some justice. The reality is that every passing week makes it less and less likely that they will.


Dr Sargant was born in 1907 into a wealthy  north London family. He was sent away to preparatory school at the age of seven and went on to The Ley’s School in Cambridge at the age of thirteen. He began his medical training at St John’s in Cambridge and qualified at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. Early on in his career he decided to specialise in psychiatry and held junior posts at a number of psychiatric hospitals including the pre-eminent Maudsley  Hospital in Camberwell.

Dr Sargant must have been a particularly charismatic man. In 1938 whilst at The Maudsley he won a scholarship to Harvard Medical School in Boston and whilst travelling to the United States by boat fell in with a crowd that included Eleanor Roosevelt 2nd who was the favourite niece of the First Lady, and Patricia Coolidge who was related to a past President. He was invited to a White House dinner and seated “one away” from the President himself.

Another meeting that Dr Sargant had whilst in America proved to be the undoing of a great many of the patients that he treated when back in London. A Portuguese neurologist, Dr Egas Moniz  had begun to operate on the frontal lobes of psychiatric patients and claimed that he was curing them. Two American psychiatrists Dr Walter Freeman and Dr Watts had started to use Moniz methods on their own patients and were enthusiastic about the results. Dr Sargant asked to interview three of these American patients.He gives an account of these examinations in his 1967 book “The Unquiet Mind”. To a lay person, the results of Freeman and Watts assaults on their patient’s brains don’t suggest a curative process. Dr Sargant admits “True, the first operations were sometimes followed by a marked deterioration of the patients personality, and the next tactical move was to overcome these effects by modifying the surgical technique while still relieving obsessive anxiety”. It should be remembered that Dr Sargant’s experiments involved hacking into people’s brains but this remark is typical of Dr Sargant who was no respecter of the human brain or mind.

Sargant’s ready acceptance in the the highest American social circles may explain the links that he was believed to have had with the CIA.


Dr Sargant returned to London in 1940. In that year ECT was introduced into Britain by Dr Grey Walter and Dr Golla at the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol. A “practical shock machine” was then perfected by Dr Strauss and Mr Macphail who began using it on patients at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. The sufferings of early patients who endured ECT without anaesthetic must have been appalling. But Dr Sargant and his colleagues sensing that they were onto something persisted with this barbarous treatment. There was a moment when basic human decency might have prevailed. Dr Sargant was refused permission by the then London County Council to use a “shock machine” on patients. Typical of Dr Sargant’s underhand methods he got a City of London charity to buy one for him. In a revealing passage in  his autobiography “The Unquiet Mind”, Dr Sargant claims that he was asked by the Superintendent to take his “shock box” to St Ebba’s Mental Hospital. According to Dr Sargant he was taken into a ward of forty patients and “we gave nearly the whole ward of agitated depressives the new shock treatment”. In a throwaway line Dr Sargant says “more than thirty made a quick recovery and were soon able to leave hospital”. It has been noted by other doctors that Dr Sargant was averse to using standard research methods to prove his assertions. Inexplicably whatever Dr Sargant claimed was swallowed whole no matter how implausible it seems to modern readers. ECT having  once fallen out of use is  currently undergoing a resurgence and has it’s supporters. Edward Shorter and David Healy make the case for ECT in their 2007  book “Shock Therapy”. ECT patients might describe memory loss and personality changes but Shorter and Healy persist with the idea that patients are mistaken.

However, new research from Radboud University in the Netherlands has suggested that ECT might be used to help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. A study there showed two groups of people” an emotionally unpleasant story” on a slideshow. One group was given ECT. A day later the people in the group that had been given ECT struggled to recall details of the slideshow, the memories of the other group were unaltered.  Dr Aidan Horner from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience said: “The ability to disrupt or even abolish specific memories, whilst leaving others intact, could have important therapeutic applications.”

Firstly, here is the long awaited admission that ECT has the potential to cause permanent memory loss. Secondly, now that events at the Allen Memorial Institute in Canada have been revealed we know that governments are capable of the unscrupulous and illegal use of ECT. Horrific possibilities are opening up. People could be put through unlawful experiences  and the memories of them erased from their minds or be ordered to commit offences and have their memories wiped clean of these events. What happened to William Sargant’s patients in narcosis at the Royal Waterloo Hospital takes on a new relevance.


In 1948 the NHS came into being. St Thomas’s and the Royal Waterloo were combined into the same administrative group. Dr Sargant was by this time a consultant psychiatrist at St Thomas’s and his department took over the the top floor at the Royal Waterloo and began treating psychiatric in-patients there. There can be no doubt that NHS patients were treated by NHS  doctors and nurses from St Thomas’s on Ward 5 at The Royal Waterloo. The Department of Health has recently tried to suggest that Sargant only treated private patients there but this is wrong. Even if it were true that only private patients had been treated there, what was going on was illegal, morally and ethically wrong and led to the deaths of five people.


This locked ward on the top floor of the building functioned as a normal psychiatric in-patient unit. ECT and drug therapy were used extensively to treat patients. It seems to be generally agreed by former patients that the facilities on Ward 5 were much better and pleasanter than those enjoyed by psychiatric patients in other NHS psychiatric units. Some have suggested that Ward 5 was funded  by pharmaceutical companies who encouraged William Sargant to experiment on his patients with new drugs before they were marketed. Others have suggested that narcosis, better known as “the sleep room” was funded by British security services and the CIA who supported William Sargant in work on brainwashing as part of  Cold War strategy of Britain and America. This is not such a fanciful claim. In Canada the Allen Memorial Institute was funded by the American CIA to carry out brainwashing experiments on patients. In the resulting court case the CIA was driven to an admission and patients were compensated for the damage done to them.  The work now being done in the Netherlands Radboud University should surely give pause for thought.


In 1964 William Sargant invented what he called “narcosis treatment”. It was supposed to wipe the mind clean of damaging experiences and allow the patient to be “reprogrammed”with a more positive mindset. Patients were being given sleep treatment in other psychiatric hospitals in the UK but treatment lasted for a matter of days. Sargant kept people asleep for up to three months and the reason that he was able to do this was that he could use the superior nursing skills of St Thomas’s Nightingale Nurses to keep his patients alive. Sargant ran this unit for 10 years and some 500 patients, mainly young women were treated there. The cost in money and man hours must have been substantial but St Thomas’s Hospital which has records going back several hundred years say they have no records of the 10 year period when Sargant was abusing patients on Ward 5. There can be no doubt that this treatment was abusive. Patients did not give their consent to be kept in a darkened room for up to three months. They did not consent to be treated with huge amounts of drugs in unheard of combinations and they did not consent to courses of ECT that were given at greater intensity and frequency than was given anywhere else in the UK. Patients could be given as many as 40 or 50 shocks whilst in the “sleep room”. A normal course of ECT treatment would involve 5-6 shocks. Patients were left helpless by this treatment. Unable to remember who they were, unable to stand unaided, incapable of feeding or washing themselves, they even had to be taken to the lavatory by nurses.

One of the most shocking aspects is that despite the claims of doctors who worked with Sargant, narcosis was an ineffective treatment that helped nobody and damaged the patients who were forced to undergo it in both gross and subtle ways.

Doctor Sargant retired in 1973 taking all Ward 5 patient’s records with him. Ward 5 closed with weeks of Sargant’s departure and St Thomas’s, so far as we know, never used this treatment on patients again. It’s easy to see why people suspect that the whole Ward 5 set up was a special project of Sargant’s backed by money from interested parties and of no relevence to the general medical care of the mentally ill.

When patients left Ward 5 after their shattering experiences in narcosis they were in no position to understand what had happened to them and to question the treatment that they had undergone. I’ve spoken to a number of former patients and none of them was in any sense cured or found their condition improved by Dr Sargant’s narcosis treatment. All report damage, particularly to their memories but also to their personalities. Many report a loss of drive and diminished interest in life. Admission to Ward 5 and narcosis was an isolating experience. None of the former patients that I’ve spoken to had any contact with others patients once they had been discharged. Because of St Thomas’s reputation they believed that the treatment that they had undergone was the best that was available. They had no reason to suspect that they had been so badly let down by St Thomas’s. The first intimations that something was terribly wrong came from the medical profession itself. What had happened on Ward 5 was being discussed by doctors long before patients ever knew that Dr Sargant had been experimenting on them. Finally a Radio 4 programme “Revealing the Mindbender General” was broadcast  in 2009 and alerted dozens of patients to the abuse that they had suffered at the hands of Dr Sargant and his colleagues. By this time Dr Sargant was dead and so never had to account for his actions. Fortunately for St Thomas’s and the NHS the time limit for investigations into medical negligence or abuse was long past and despite repeated attempts no patient has been able to bring a case against either of them.

To read the blog of a former narcosis patient please go to


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