Donald Ewen Cameron and Psychiatry as Manipulation

There's a lot of controversy around Donald Ewen Cameron's name. Find out with us why many consider him "the father of torture".
Donald Ewen Cameron and Psychiatry as Manipulation
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

There’s a great contradiction around Donald Ewen Cameron. For one, some people remember him as one of the most important psychiatrists in history. He was nothing more and nothing less than the first president of the World Psychiatric Association, as well as of the American Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Psychiatric Association.

On the other hand, he played a huge part in one of the darkest episodes in the history of psychiatry. Actually, plenty of individuals remember him as “the father of torture”. The reason some people call him this is that he was behind some of the most barbaric experiments ever known.

In fact, right now, a group of people in Canada is promoting a review of the events that involved Donald Ewen Cameron. Interestingly, most of them are relatives of the victims of this psychiatrist. They’re looking to make everything public so that everyone gets to find out what Cameron did. They want to sanction all his actions in a historical and moral way.

In this article, we’ll give you a brief review of his life and some of his actions, which have been (and continue to be) heavily censored.

Who was Donald Ewen Cameron?

Donald Ewen Cameron was born in Bridge of Allen, a small town in Scotland, on December 24, 1901. He studied Medicine at the University of Glasgow and obtained his degree in 1924. He later specialized in Psychology.

In 1926, he moved to the United States thanks to a research fellowship in psychiatry offered by the Phillips Clinic, based in Baltimore. Later, he practiced in different institutions in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Evidently, this led him to become a prominent figure in the field of psychiatry.

In those years, Donald Ewen Cameron made several academic publications. It’s safe to say he didn’t really offer major innovations in them. However, in 1937, he published a particularly striking article about epilepsy.

Back then, everyone viewed epileptic individuals as mentally ill. In his text, Cameron talked about treatments that, according to him, could improve these people’s lives. Said treatments included practices to completely dehydrate patients and infect them with malaria, not to mention the indiscriminate application of insulin, electroshocks, and lobotomies. This is how Cameron put aside his purely academic texts to enter a path full of controversy.

A man being brainwashed.

A man of the CIA

With the outbreak of World War II, the US OSS (Office of Strategic Services) recruited Donald Ewen Cameron. This organization was the forerunner of the CIA. In 1943, Cameron settled in Canada and created the department of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal. He also became the director of the Allan Memorial Institute.

In the latter institution, he performed several macabre experiments between 1950 and 1965. He carried out most of these investigations in a clandestine way. It’s also important to mention that they were heavily funded by the CIA and the Canadian government.

Cameron implemented a “deprogramming” treatment of the brain. To develop this, he worked with various mental health patients including children, women with postpartum depression, and schizophrenics.

Treatment included three phases. In the first, a coma was induced for a period of up to three months or more. The second phase consisted of applying electroshocks that caused severe amnesia. Finally, in the third phase, the patient was isolated in a cell and administered high doses of LSD.

At that point, the patient was ready for his mind to be “reprogrammed”. Many of them behaved like babies, to the point of thumb-sucking just like children do. The treatment left the patients absolutely defenseless and unable to make decisions for themselves. For these reasons, a lot of people consider Cameron as “the father of torture”, an unscrupulous man capable of pushing his investigations to the limit. He was someone who didn’t hesitate to put ethics and morals aside. 

A person's head composed of black squares.

Did Donald Ewen Cameron have to face the consequences of his actions?

No one truly knows how many people in total he deprogrammed. In Canada, there was apparently a minimum of 100 victims but no one can tell the exact number. We must mention that many of the patients subjected to these harassments died or never recovered.

However, it is known that the North American government compensated nine patients with permanent damage. In Canada, 77 victims received financial compensation for such torture, and at least 12 other patients received extrajudicial compensation, but with nondisclosure clauses.

In May 2018, the families of the victims met for the first time. Together, they decided to file a lawsuit against the Canadian government. They have a set objective. They want the State to publicly admit its participation in these events, apologize for it, and commit itself to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

Meanwhile, Donald Ewen Cameron died in 1967, and his prestige remained intact. His death occurred while climbing a mountain. As soon as his family found out about his death, they burned all the files that this man kept in his possession.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Pavón-Cuéllar, D. (2017). Psicología y Destrucción del Psiquismo: La Utilización Profesional del Conocimiento Psicológico para la Tortura de Presos Políticos. Psicologia Ciência e Profissão, 37, 11-27.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.