Read Time:11 Minute, 10 Second

  • Women with postnatal depression and  anorexia passed through Royal  Waterloo’s infamous Ward 5
  • They were drugged and subjected to  horrendous levels of ECT
  • Unluckiest were taken to the ‘Narcosis Room’  and put to sleep for weeks

By  Barbara Davies

PUBLISHED: 16:38 EST, 7  August 2013 |  UPDATED: 17:10 EST, 7 August 2013

There are many horrors that Elizabeth Reed  recalls from her time at London’s Royal Waterloo Hospital, but one in particular  lingers in her mind. She describes a small, windowless room at the top of the  red-brick Edwardian building, just lit by a night lamp on a nurse’s desk.

Six beds are jammed together. The deep  breathing of women in a drug-induced sleep. The fetid stench of unwashed  bodies.

‘It was like being buried alive,’ she says.  ‘I was lying there in the dark, hour after hour, and couldn’t move. I wasn’t  aware of my body,  just my head in this darkness. You could hear people  moving around and other people breathing and moaning.’

Disturbing footage of a patient having narcosis treatment 

Treated like guinea pigs: TV footage of a patient having  narcosis treatment

While Elizabeth is one of only a handful of  women prepared to speak out, her story is not unique. Up to 500 women, suffering  from conditions such as postnatal depression and anorexia, passed through the  Royal Waterloo’s infamous Ward 5 before it shut 40 years ago.

Heavily drugged and subjected to horrendous  levels of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and even lobotomies, the unluckiest  were taken to the ‘Narcosis Room’, where they were put to sleep for weeks at a  time.

Almost all teenage girls and women in their  early 20s, they were treated as little more than guinea pigs by controversial  psychiatrist William Sargant as he conducted a bizarre experiment to ‘repattern’  their brains and cure them of depression.

If all this sounds like the stuff of  science-fiction horror, it is no coincidence a new psychological thriller, The  Sleep Room, by clinical psychologist-turned-novelist F. R. Tallis, draws heavily  on Sargant’s scandalous treatments.

But behind the fiction, questions remain  about why the women of Ward 5 were subjected to such cruelty at an NHS hospital.  Two of them, now in their 60s, spoke about their experiences to Femail this  week.

Survivor: Elizabeth Reed 

Survivor: Elizabeth Reed

‘It’s so easy to dismiss us,’ says Elizabeth,  a 63-year-old grandmother and former marketing director from London. ‘It was a  long time ago and we were psychiatric patients. Many of  us were left with  pieces of our memory missing.

‘We were not drooling maniacs, but if you’ve  been put in a sleep room, then your memories are not going to be clear. I lost  huge chunk of my past.’

Officially, the Department of Health says it  no longer has records of Sargant’s work at the Royal Waterloo, affiliated to  London’s St Thomas’s Hospital. However, Elizabeth has a copy of her referral  letter from January 1973, stamped with the ominous words: ‘Admit to Ward 5.’  Notes reveal she was given a ‘course of narcosis’.

She had been diagnosed with ‘obsessional  neurosis’ and, by her own admission, was very ill — depression compounded by a  difficult childhood.

‘But many other women I have spoken to say  they were suffering from milder forms of depression and anxiety,’ she says. ‘The  treatment was completely out of proportion.’

She was admitted to the Royal Waterloo in  spring 1973 when she was 22 and engaged to be married. After arriving on the  22-bed Ward 5, she was sedated and underwent ECT — sometimes every other  day.

‘I can remember the sound of the ECT machine  being wheeled down the corridor and it being switched on and off in other  rooms,’ she says.

‘It was so frightening. First of all, they  injected you and you had an awful feeling of falling backwards into yourself.  After ECT, you didn’t know who you were.’

Eventually, Elizabeth was moved into the  Narcosis Room beside Ward 5 and put into a drug-induced sleep.

‘I  was awake, but couldn’t move or speak. It was torture, lying there for hours in  the darkness’

Women there were occasionally woken to be  taken to the toilet or to be fed. ‘We were like zombies,’ says Elizabeth. ‘I  couldn’t walk. I had to be lifted. Afterwards, they put you back to sleep  again.

‘The worst time was when I started not to be  asleep. I was awake, but couldn’t move or speak. It was torture, lying there for  hours in the darkness.’

Sargant, a founding member of St Thomas’s  department of psychological medicine, who advocated the use of drugs to treat  mental illness, operated his ‘sleep room’ for ten years until 1973.  Four patients are known to have died  there and yet no one stepped in to stop him.

A Cambridge medical graduate, obsessed with  making a name for himself, he used high doses of tranquillisers and administered  ECT up to twice a week on Ward 5 and every other day in the Narcosis  Room.

At the heart of his treatment was his belief  that the brain could be ‘repatterned’ to erase bad memories.

His fame – due to TV and radio interviews and  best-selling books – ensured a steady stream of patients. He was friends with  authors Aldous Huxley and Robert Graves.

Actress Celia Imrie was 14 when she was  treated by Sargant on Ward 5 and given huge doses of drugs and  ECT.

In her 2011 autobiography, The Happy Hoofer,  she recalls sneaking out of bed to peer into the sleep room. She describes  ‘dead-looking women lying on the floor on grey mattresses, silent in a kind of  electrically induced twilight’.

But to this day, she is unsure if she had  treatment in the sleep room because patients were drugged on the ward before  being carried there.

Up to 500 women, suffering from conditions such as postnatal depression and anorexia, passed through the Royal Waterloo's infamous Ward 5 before it shut 40 years ago 

Up to 500 women, suffering from conditions such as  postnatal depression and anorexia, passed through the Royal Waterloo’s infamous  Ward 5 before it shut 40 years ago

‘You went in asleep and you came out asleep.  So maybe I was in the Narcosis Room. I could not possibly know,’ she  says.

The secrecy surrounding Dr Sargant’s work has  even led to claims he was being bankrolled by British intelligence and the CIA.  He certainly had links to the military in World War II, working at Porton Down,  the Ministry of Defence biological and chemical weapons research  base.

But long before he died in 1988, Sargant  destroyed all his records, which might have shed light on his sinister  treatments.

‘It  was impossible to rebel because you  were constantly drugged. It was an unreal  world and I was  frightened and disorientated’

According to Hilary Jameson, who arrived at  the Royal Waterloo in 1970, being admitted to Ward 5 was ‘like falling into the  jaws of hell’.

As a 17-year-old A-level student in Oxford,  she stopped eating after her parents’ divorce, though she insists she was far  from anorexic.

‘People were talking about this marvellous  man in London who could work miracles,’ says the 61-year-old, now a  psychotherapist.

‘He was stern, a tall, cold man with very  dark eyes. He didn’t speak to me. He just told my mother that if I wasn’t  admitted then I’d die.’

Within half an hour of arriving, Hilary was  injected with largactil – a powerful anti-psychotic drug. ‘It  was impossible to rebel because you were constantly drugged,’ she says. ‘It was  an unreal world and I was frightened and disorientated.’

Forced to eat huge amounts of carbohydrates  so that she put on weight, Hilary had an ever-present threat of ‘narcosis’  hanging over her if she did not show signs of improvement. ‘We used to see the  women in the sleep room being taken to the bathroom or to be fed and they were  like ghosts. It made you feel very worried. I couldn’t make sense of what was  going on around us.’

Hilary was forced to undergo ECT and  displayed to medical students by Sargant as he taught them ‘how to deal with  anorexic girls’.

Actress Celia Imrie was 14 when she was treated by Sargant on Ward 5 and given huge doses of drugs and ECT 

Actress Celia Imrie was 14 when she was treated by  Sargant on Ward 5 and given huge doses of drugs and ECT

‘He came across as highly respectable and  authoritative,’ says Hilary. ‘But most patients in Ward 5 were just young girls  who had problems with their families. It was barbaric.’

A leading psychiatric expert, Professor  Malcolm Lader of King’s College, London, recalls how, as a junior doctor,  Sargant showed him his sleep room several times in 1966.

‘To be frank, I was horrified by what I saw,’  he says.

‘The women were really cramped together. It  was dark. It was like twilight. There was a terrible smell of unwashed bodies.

‘It was a fraught procedure to be sedated for  that amount of time. Most importantly, there was no evidence that narcosis had  any effect.

‘He was doling out drugs in large doses that  were way above the recommended maximum dose. I resolved never to send anyone  there.’

Professor Lader also sheds light on why no  one stopped Sargant.

‘He was an over-powering, imperious figure.  He spoke to me as if I must approve and I’m afraid I was too junior and too  cowardly to say I thought the whole thing needed properly  investigating.

‘They wouldn’t get away with it now because  the law has changed. You have to show there is some logic and rationale to what  you are doing.

‘But back then, he would not brook any  opposition. He built up an empire filled with his acolytes.’

There were also rumours, says Professor  Lader, that Sargant was untouchable because he was supported by British  intelligence or the CIA. He was a frequent traveller to the U.S. and wrote in  his autobiography of being entertained at the White House during one of his  trips.

‘He was interested in brainwashing and so was  the CIA. He may have been protected by his contacts.’

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Ward 5 and  Sargant’s sleep room closed when he retired in 1973 — the same year the CIA  officially ended its top-secret mind-control experiments, codenamed Project  MKUltra.

Whatever the truth, the young women from  troubled families made perfect patients for Sargant’s experiments. F. R Tallis,  who researched Sargant for his novel, says: ‘He cherry-picked them. They were  easy targets — alienated from their families and unable to challenge his  authority.’

‘There  was no way back to my old life. I am angry about what I feel I missed out on.  I’ve lost chunks of my memory’

Stephanie Simons, a 78-year-old Sussex  artist, visited Sargant’s private rooms in London’s Harley Street in 1967  suffering from depression. She sheds a more sinister light on the bias towards  women, recalling how he asked her to strip to the waist so he could examine her  before administering anti-depressants.

‘He didn’t ask me to get dressed again,’ she  says. ‘He told me to sit in a chair, naked to the waist, and talked to me for  nearly an hour like that.

‘He was stern and professional, so I didn’t  dare say anything.’ Today, Sargant’s  reputation as a serious psychiatrist is in tatters, but there is still interest  in his mind-control books.

A copy of his brainwashing title Battle Of  The Mind is said to have been found at an Al Qaeda training camp in  Afghanistan.

As for the Royal Waterloo, it closed as a  hospital in 1976 and is now owned by an American university. Sargant’s sleep  room is a student bedsit.

But for the women who fell into his hands,  his legacy lives on. ‘He damaged us,’  says Elizabeth. ‘He destroyed our  potential.’

After being discharged from Ward 5, she was  unable to cope with her career in marketing and took jobs as a supermarket  shelf-stacker and a cleaning lady.

‘It changed me. I lost interest in things,’  she says. ‘There was no way back to my old life. I am angry about what I feel I  missed out on. I’ve lost chunks of my memory. And I can’t lay down new  memories.’

Hilary adds: ‘It dulled me an awful lot. It  knocked the spirit out of me. Taking so many drugs had a bad effect – by the  time I was 26 I had ovarian cysts.’

In Australia and Canada, where Sargant’s  methods were disastrously emulated, dozens of narcosis patients died. Those who  survived were eventually compensated.

Survivors of the Royal Waterloo Hospital have  been told by lawyers that the lack of paperwork and the amount of time that has  passed makes it unlikely they will ever be similarly  compensated. But above all, women like  Elizabeth and Hilary want to be acknowledged. They want to know how Sargant can  have been allowed to get away with such monstrous behaviour.

‘People talk about the sleep room as if it  was something from another world,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But  we’re still alive. We’re still here. We’re still suffering from what he and his  colleagues did to us.’

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