November 30, 2008
| Few people in Vermont remember Dr. Robert W. Hyde, but one of his former patients can’t forget him. The doctor was involved in one of the nation’s darkest chapters in medical science: In the 1950s, Hyde conducted drug and psychological experiments at a Boston hospital through funding that apparently originated with the CIA. Later, he became director of research at the Vermont State Hospital.
The patient, Karen Wetmore, is convinced that Hyde and other researchers subjected her and possibly other patients to experiments paid for by the CIA at the Waterbury facility.
In addition to her claim, new evidence, though incomplete, suggests that such tests might have been conducted at the Vermont State Hospital.
Several books and numerous newspaper accounts have detailed how techniques developed through testing, including on mental health patients at hospitals in other parts of the country, are related to the interrogation methods used in Guantanamo and other locations in the war on terror. These well-known and well-documented drug experiments began in secret after the Korean War and were sponsored by the U.S. government.
News accounts and histories of the experiments have not mentioned the Vermont State Hospital, but a congressional committee concluded that dozens of institutions, some of which have never been identified, were involved in secret experiments for the CIA.
A complicated, disturbing story
Wetmore, who grew up in Brandon and now lives in Rutland, resided at the Vermont State Hospital for extended periods in her teens and early 20s.
Hyde had a long and distinguished career as a psychiatrist and university researcher before he returned to Vermont in the late 1960s. He died in Bakersfield, his birthplace, in 1976.
This story centers on the possible intersection of Hyde’s research work and Wetmore’s experiences at the state hospital. The strands of the narrative, constructed from government documents and her memory, is complicated, confusing and sometimes disturbing.
Her claim, that the Waterbury hospital was involved in experimentation on patients, has never been reported despite numerous instances in which it could have come to public attention, including a lawsuit that Wetmore settled out of court.
Further complicating matters is Wetmore’s severe memory loss, which she says is the result of her treatment at the Vermont State Hospital where she says she was given experimental drugs, experienced repetitive electroshock therapy and was subjected unwittingly to other tests. Her medical records from the Vermont State Hospital, including daily logs and summaries of her treatment support these claims.
Another obstacle for Wetmore is the social stigma of mental illness. She says once a patient is committed to a mental hospital, “the first thing they take away from you is your credibility.”
In order to figure out what really happened to her at the Vermont State Hospital and to overcome this credibility gap, Wetmore has spent more than 12 years collecting and analyzing reams of government documents, including state hospital records, declassified CIA paperwork and histories of MK-Ultra, the code name of the CIA’s best-known clandestine research projects on mind-control.
At many points Wetmore reached dead ends: The government denied her requests for certain documents and heavily redacted key evidence from others. Some documents were destroyed.
In 1997, Wetmore decided to bring a lawsuit against the state. A psychiatrist and a Rutland lawyer agreed to help her with the case and spent months collecting and poring over evidence. They both came to the conclusion that Wetmore was the subject of drug experiments at the hospital.
Wetmore and her advocates could not unequivocally link her case to the CIA’s research activities at other institutions through government documents from the agency, but histories of the CIA’s psychiatric testing, other documents and a preponderance of circumstantial evidence around Wetmore’s treatment based on her medical records suggest the Vermont State Hospital may have been one of the sites for secret experimentation.
The CIA destroyed much of the evidence regarding the drug and psychological tests on unwitting patients in the 1970s as the truth about its funding for the tests came to light, according to a 1975 congressional review headed by U.S. Sen. Frank Church.
Several authors have examined government research programs in other parts of the country, but they have not fingered the Vermont State Hospital as a site for the secret experiments.
Several striking conclusions have arisen from their research and Wetmore’s paper trail:
Many of the people affiliated with the Vermont State Hospital in the 1960s and 1970s when Hyde worked at the Waterbury facility said they do not believe or do not have evidence that either the hospital or Hyde carried out such experiments on patients at the Waterbury facility. Few of the individuals interviewed for this story were willing to speak on the record; many of the most important potential sources are now deceased.
The Vermont State Hospital’s current director, Terry Rowe, said she is not familiar with the questions Wetmore raises.
“This is information that was unknown to me,” Rowe said. “I don’t know it if is valid or not.”
It is also important to note that although the experiments represent an ugly period in American psychiatric research, they were followed by a revolution in the field of mental health. In some instances, the same scientists who were involved in CIA-funded experiments also conducted the research that has led to the development of drug therapies that have enabled many patients to live comparatively normal lives.
This phenomenon in turn has allowed mental hospitals and other institutions around the nation to significantly reduce the number of patients who require 24-hour care.
A researcher’s dark connections
The trail linking Karen Wetmore’s treatment at Vermont State Hospital to the CIA is twisting, sometimes nearly impossible to follow and for the most part cold, but what kept Wetmore going was the recurring and distinctive footprint of Dr. Robert Hyde.
Hyde was 25 when he graduated as a Reserve Officer Training Corps student at the University of Vermont’s school of medicine in 1935. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and worked as an intern at the Marine Hospital in New Orleans.
He later became a researcher at Boston University and Harvard University and assistant superintendent at Boston Psychopathic, a hospital associated with Harvard now known as the Massachusetts Mental Health Center – and one of the key institutions connected to the CIA research. Hyde then served as assistant superintendent at Butler Health Center in Providence, R.I., before returning to Vermont as director of research at Vermont State Hospital.
Hyde died on Aug. 1, 1976, leaving a widow and no children. He was, in the words of a co-worker at the Waterbury hospital, “a sweetheart.”
He also was an intellectual adventurer. In 1949, while serving as assistant superintendent at Boston Psychopathic, he experimented on himself, taking what many believe to be the first acid trip in America.
“There is no way of determining who was the first American to take LSD. But one of the earliest was a Boston doctor named Robert Hyde,” Jay Stevens wrote in “Storming Heaven,” a history of the drug. “What followed was fascinating. Right before their eyes, Hyde, the even-keeled Vermonter, turned into a paranoiac, as a swarm of little suspicions — why are those people smiling? Was that a door closing? — began eating away at his composure.”
It was Hyde’s colleague, Rinkel, who is credited with bringing the first batch of LSD into the United States. Earlier in 1949, Rinkel had obtained a supply of LSD from Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland, where it was developed, and brought it home with him to Boston Psychopathic. Rinkel and Hyde went on to organize an LSD study at the facility in which they tested the drug on 100 volunteers, reporting their initial findings in May 1950 at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
So began the scientific foray into an aspect of mental health research that struggled for funding, although it eventually produced revolutionary breakthroughs in the field. The new drug therapies led to a significant reduction in the number of institutionalized mental patients nationwide. At the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury the shift has been dramatic. Once there were 1,200 patients housed at the facility; now it treats about 50.
Long before the Boston researchers’ work laid the foundation for those groundbreaking psychiatric studies, it garnered attention from another, less benign profession. Soon after the Rinkel-Hyde report appeared in the APA journal, the CIA became interested in the researchers’ work, according to Stevens and others who have researched the subject.
“Early on they contacted Rinkel and Hyde at Mass. Mental Health, and with Hyde as the principal contact began pouring as much as $40,000 a year into LSD research,” Stevens wrote.
The CIA and the U.S. military had their own reasons for wanting to finance such experiments, an interest dating at least to the Korean War when American prisoners of war were subjected to various psychiatric drugs.
In the 1950s, the New York Times, reporting on congressional hearings and studies of the effect of Communist interrogation of U.S. prisoners, wrote: “Chinese Communist attempts to create confusion, disloyalty and doubts about this country’s role were highly effective among American prisoners captured during the Korean War, an Army psychiatrist said here today.”
The article went on to report on the 1950 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association and on Rinkel’s research “based on the experimental reproduction of mental illness in 100 normal volunteers. The illness, similar to schizophrenia, was induced by small dosages of the chemical d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).”
The Korean War torture methods were outlined in a chart published in a 1957 Air Force study.
“The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guanatanmo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency,” according to a New York Times report in 2008.
Another recent mention of the connection between “spies and shrinks” was made in an Oct. 18 Newsweek article.
“The ties go back decades, to the early years of the Cold War when psychologists helped the CIA experiment on U.S. citizens with mind-altering drugs. The relationship has warmed and cooled over the years, heating up whenever defense or intelligence officials wanted better mind-control methods, ways to direct people’s behavior or detect deception,” according to the magazine.
The quote came from an article about Steven Reisner, a psychologist who is vying to become head of the American Psychological Association. Reisner wants to end cooperation of the organization’s members with interrogators.
It’s not clear Rinkel and Hyde knew the CIA and U.S. military were secretly financing their work — although histories of the subject make the case that they did.
Their colleagues and friends, however, insist the researchers did not collude with military intelligence.
In 1977, in response to an investigation into the CIA experiments, Harold Pfautz wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times defending his own research — funded in part by the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, an MK-Ultra front — and that of Hyde.
Pfautz wrote: “I know that I (and I am convinced that Dr. Robert W. Hyde, then superintendent of the Butler Health Center, as well as my other colleagues) had no knowledge of the CIA auspices and functions of the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. In a word this was a ‘black’ operation — deceptive and intended to deceive — on the part of the government and addressed to me as a citizen.”
No one has specifically looked at whether MK-Ultra experiments occurred in Vermont. Former employees, attorneys and doctors familiar with the facility and its patients, as well as researchers who have studied case histories of the hospital’s patients, have all said they found no evidence of unethical experimentation before Hyde returned to the hospital or after that would lead them to believe that the institution had been used for MK-Ultra experimentation.
Among the strongest defenders of Hyde’s reputation is Lois Sabin, who was an administrator at the hospital for years and served for a time as director of nursing education.
Sabin is adamant that Hyde left his interest in experimental research behind him when he returned to Vermont to work at the state hospital.
“He was a very brilliant man and a great asset at the hospital,” said Sabin, who is now retired and still lives in Waterbury. “I thought he was a sweetheart. He was very, very knowledgeable.”
A trail of missing documents
Conclusive answers to the many questions Hyde’s history raises may never be known: many of the documents concerning the CIA funding, the front organizations and the drug experiments on mental health patients have been destroyed. In addition, many of those who were involved in the programs or may have known about them have died.
A 1994 Government Accounting Office report on the clandestine research notes that at least 15 of the 80 facilities around North America known to have participated in the research remain unidentified and may never be, while others, including Boston Psychopathic Hospital and McGill University in Montreal, are well-known.
In the McGill case, a prominent Albany, N.Y., psychiatrist, Ewen Cameron, was accused of working for the CIA and performing experiments on patients in a mental hospital there in the 1950s and 1960s.
According to a book on the subject by John Marks, “Patients of Dr. Cameron were subjected to a regimen that included heavy doses of LSD and barbiturates, the application of powerful electric shocks two or three times a day, and prolonged periods of drug-induced sleep.” In 1988, the U.S. government paid nine former patients $750,000 to settle a lawsuit in the matter, and the Canadian government has also paid dozens of compensation claims.
Wetmore is convinced that mind-altering experiments were also conducted at the Vermont State Hospital.
Some of the procedures used in Cameron’s experiments, specifically electroshock and drug therapies, appear to be similar to those that appear on Wetmore’s medical charts at the state hospital.
To support her claim, Wetmore cites a report on the results of a federal research grant for schizophrenia and the use of tranquilizers that was undertaken at the Vermont hospital in the late 1950s. The report was written long before Hyde became director of research at the state hospital and before Wetmore was a patient there.
This research project included experimental use of the use of tri-fluoperazine on patients at the Waterbury hospital, an antipsychotic drug that is still used for some schizophrenia sufferers.
The study reported disturbing results, including: “On the third day, the charge attendant said, ‘It’s like old times. It’s bedlam.’”
“Thirteen patients were suffering severe withdrawal reactions indistinguishable clinically from a moderate withdrawal reaction following long-term ingestion of morphine,” according to the study results. Later in the study an attendant said nine patients were “constantly pacing back and forth like caged lions.”
One of the consultants working on the study was Dr. Milton Greenblatt, who was also assistant superintendent at Massachusetts Mental Health Center — the former Boston Psychopathic, where Hyde was assistant superintendent.
An even more direct link is in a report on a personality study at the Vermont State Hospital between 1963 and 1966 titled, “The Use of Programmed Instruction with Disturbed Students” and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The institute was one of the cover organizations used to conceal the source of funding for various CIA projects. These groups also paid for research unrelated to military or espionage studies.
The study lists a Washington, D.C., address, 1834 Connecticut Ave. N.W., as a source for personality-testing information. That address is identified as a front for the spy agency in Marks’ book about the CIA’s experimental work, “The Search for the Manchurian Candidate.”
The top CIA psychologist, John Gittinger, developed this personality assessment test that, according to Marks, became a centerpiece of the agency’s psychological work.
The researchers in the Vermont hospital program not only used Gittinger’s test; they also sent him results of their own trials, according to a report on the research grant written by Vermont State Hospital doctors.
So, was the Vermont State Hospital one of the institutions used by researchers to perform now-discredited experiments on hapless mental patients like Karen Wetmore? She believes absolutely that it was; others say they doubt it.
The evidence is circumstantial and incomplete. Unless someone brings a case to court that breaks down the barriers that have been erected by the CIA, conclusive answers to questions Wetmore and the documentation she has gathered raises are unlikely.
A patient on a quest
The first time Wetmore was admitted to the Vermont State Hospital she was just a young girl.
“It’s the only time I ever saw my father cry,” she said recently.
A troubled child, Wetmore had been treated at outpatient mental health clinics, but her illness persisted. At 13, after she threatened her mother and was found wandering confusedly in the halls of her school in Brandon, Wetmore was committed to the Waterbury hospital for a little less than a year in 1965-1966 and again between 1970 and 1972.
Now in her mid-50s, Wetmore, is physically frail and drawn looking. She lives alone in Rutland and is still in therapy. She speaks hesitantly when she talks about what little she recalls of her experiences at the Vermont State Hospital.
In the intervening years, Wetmore has tried to trace the cause of her mental illness. She believes several traumas may have triggered her lifelong struggle with multiple personality disorder (a dissociative disorder in which the sufferer often compartmentalizes memories and aspects of their personality) and a form of extreme anxiety, a condition her doctors referred to as “hysteria” in the 1960s.
Wetmore says that as a child she remembers seeing someone die in a fire. She also says she was traumatized by sexual abuse that she believes was perpetrated by a family friend. She attempted suicide twice as a young woman.
When she was 15, Wetmore seemed well enough to be released from the Waterbury hospital. Looking back, she says she seemed to be recovering from her mental illness.
She had been out of the Vermont State Hospital for two years when she was engaged to an 18-year-old from Brandon. In 1969, her fiancé was killed in a car accident.
“That pretty much did it for me,” Wetmore said.
Over the next few years, she was in and out of the state hospital, and she was eventually transferred to the psychiatry ward of Mary Fletcher in Burlington. Wetmore was 20 when she was finally released in 1972.
Wetmore’s road to mental health has been difficult. She attempted suicide before and after her time in the hospital and was held in the psychiatry ward at Rutland Regional Hospital several times, including after her stints at the state hospital.
Gradually, she gained control of her life, though even now there are long periods of her personal history she cannot remember. To retrace her forgotten steps she has documented what happened to her through medical records starting in the mid-1990s. Now boxes of documents and shelves of books line a closet in the Rutland apartment where she lives.
“We had to go through hell and high water to get my medical records,” she said.
Dr. Thomas Fox, the Rutland doctor who treated Wetmore, was so appalled by the nature of her state hospital treatment records that he agreed to help her with a lawsuit against the state in 1997. Fox, who also became a top mental health official with the state of New Hampshire before his death, had never before agreed to be an expert witness in a civil litigation.
A 140-page deposition and an outline by Fox show that he concluded that Wetmore was an unwitting subject of experimental testing while she was a patient at the Vermont State Hospital.
“Although Plaintiff was not schizophrenic or otherwise psychotic, she was treated with medication as if she were. Even though it was noted by the Defendants early on that she was allergic to these medications, that they would alter her behavior adversely, and that they would cause her permanent damage and even threaten her life, she was involuntarily administered massive doses of these drugs throughout the periods of her confinement,” according to Wetmore’s lawsuit. “Plaintiff was kept almost constantly in seclusion, often bound with wristlets behind her back, and left to lie unattended and unrelieved, naked on a tile floor.”
“I became convinced, based on the record, that Karen had been mistreated at certain phases of her treatment in (Waterbury), and that, from a professional standpoint, the way in which we police ourselves, the way in which we keep each other ethical and competent, when we identify that, we (members of our profession) should do something about it,” Fox said in a deposition in the lawsuit to Wetmore and the state’s lawyer. “That’s my feeling, you should act on it.”
He wrote in an outline that he prepared for her lawsuit in 2000: “I must conclude, in my opinion, that Karen was involved in drug experimentation without her knowledge or consent.”
Fox said he reached this conclusion because at the hospital Wetmore was kept in “seclusion” or isolation for extended periods of time — apparently for weeks at a stretch during a period of months. She was given placebos, and her medications were changed, indicating there was an experimental aspect to her care, he wrote.
Moreover, the treatment Wetmore received did not follow standard treatment for “hysteria,” the diagnosis that Fox said would have been most supported by her symptoms. Wetmore has also been diagnosed at the hospital with multiple personality syndrome — an assessment she agrees with — and schizophrenia, which she and Fox both said was not accurate. Treatment for schizophrenia is significantly different from care for a multiple personality syndrome diagnosis.
While at the hospital Wetmore was given electroshock treatment — sometimes many times a day according to her medical records — and Metrazol, a drug that can induce seizures and whose federal approval has since been revoked.
She was also subjected to other treatments, including with other medications and shock treatment, the nature of which are still not fully known.
Fox also noted that during the periods in which Wetmore was there the Vermont State Hospital was engaged in drug research.
In the midst of building her lawsuit, Wetmore realized she had to drop it because of her failing physical health. She had a heart attack, her second. Wetmore, who still has several serious physical health problems, reached a private settlement with the state instead, according to Alan George, her attorney.
George, a sometime utility lawyer who practices in Rutland, said recently that because of the strength of the case he was very reluctant to accept that settlement agreement.
“I didn’t really want to drop that suit,” George remembered. “I thought we had a pretty solid suit, frankly.”
Wetmore’s lawsuit, based on the hard evidence required for a court of law, did not delve into what she believes to be the connections between her case and CIA research at the hospital.
Fox steered clear of that aspect of the case in his work with Wetmore, he said in the deposition for her lawsuit.
“I didn’t find it germane to what I viewed as my task. It was outside the scope of what I perceived the issues to be,” he said.
“We never really got to the bottom of that (CIA connection). We did not try the case based on some grand, national conspiracy even though Karen had connected some of the dots,” George said.
George said they chose not to pursue her theories about the CIA in part because most of the people were dead by the time the lawsuit was filed. Even so, George said, some aspects of Wetmore’s treatment were very strange.
“The whole regimen of drug therapy … was bizarre,” he said. Furthermore, the background of some of those involved or consulted about the research at the hospital did strike George as odd.
“There is no question about who these characters were and what they were involved in,” he said. “But all of that was guilt by association.”
On the other side of this equation, though, are various mental health professionals in Vermont, including former state Mental Health Commissioner Jonathan Leopold, who in 1971 wrote a letter to Wetmore’s worried mother reassuring her that her daughter was undergoing treatment and doctors, including Dr. Robert Hyde, were reviewing her case.
He also wrote: “Her behavior was very difficult and at times she represented a real danger to herself and to others. She was never, of course, left for three days and nights unattended in a separate room as all patients are taken out at frequent intervals for care and exercise and an opportunity to use the toilets.”
Wetmore’s daily logs of her hospital stay and medical records appear to contradict that statement.
Whatever the connections between the federal government and what happened to Wetmore in the state hospital, the experience has left Wetmore physically frail, but as determined as ever to find out what really happened to her.
Wetmore says she doesn’t think mental health patients should ever be involved, even when they apparently give consent, in psychological experiments no matter how beneficial they may be to society. Her experience, she says, is proof of how such studies can damage the life of a vulnerable person.