Interview with Dr Ronald Sandison

Context: Research for Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control
Location: via Phone and at Interviewee’s home
Date: 2005
Interviewee: Dr Ronald Sandison

Dr Ronald Sandison was the first British psychiatrist to use LSD clinically. Here he talks about his involvement with the drug, its effects, his thoughts on Timothy Leary, Albert Hoffman, Aldous Huxley, R Gordon Wasson and William Sargant. At the end of the interview is a second one – much shorter, but more interesting to intelligence-watchers – in which we discuss funding for his LSD programmes in the 1950s, and debate whether he was unwittingly being used by MI5, MI6 and Porton Down as a source of information on ‘truth drugs‘.

Dr Sandison was a huge help to me when I was researching ‘Brainwash’ and we spoke many times. I thought he was a wonderful, wonderful man. He died in 2010.

The first interview here took place at his home, the second was by phone.

Download: Download Interview (PDF)

How did you come to be involved with LSD?

I first went to Basel on a study group – this was about 1950, 52 – and met [Albert] Hoffman, who had restarted experimenting with LSD around 1948. By the time I was there, they were working on spiders spinning webs…

Hoffman had discovered the drug in 1938, then sat on it and rediscovered again?

That’s right, yes, you see, I have this translation here [reads from a conference paper]: ‘The medical profession has been interested in ergot…’ Another early paper, ‘14 normal people, one of whom is given LSD twice…’ What’s interesting about these are that they were not influenced by anybody else – because nobody knew what to expect. Then Hoffman went [reads on]:  ‘One subject tried to describe the state of not being in control and said “I can watch myself all the time, as if being in a mirror, and realise my faults and mental disorders. Despite my great efforts, I find it impossible to correct myself, as everything keeps slipping away and appearing at once again.” Another subject said spontaneously she was glad not to have been questioned a lot. She would not have been able to answer any of the questions either positively or negatively. One is reminded of the state of narcoanalysis, the state among others that is produced by pentothal.’

I think it was really that – people were experiencing something about themselves that they hadn’t previously known about. There was one subject who said it made her think things that were better left forgotten.

Then after that Hoffman went to the a hospital and gave LSD to a number of psychotic patients. Which he didn’t get much from. Apart from some brief work by Bush and Johnson in the States, where they gave LSD to eight psychoneurotic patients but never followed it up (and it was a rather poor paper that they wrote) we were really the first people to use LSD with psychoneurotic patients.

Why did Hoffman pick this up again?

Hoffman seemed to have this curious sort of intuition. He just said, he thought there was something in this drug, he wasn’t sure. But he never told me exactly why. I don’t think he really describes it himself. Have you come across his book? He doesn’t really go into it.

When you went to Europe, had anyone else had done anything with LSD?

No, except for Bush and Johnson in the States. They weren’t serious investigators. I learned afterwards. I think it was Charles Savage who told me that they’d said ‘Well you know we’ve got these psychoneurotic patients, we’re not quite sure what to do with them. Let’s give them some LSD and really shake things up a bit and see what happens.’ And that was really their attitude. That’s not a very scientific attitude. But they did a report that the patients seemed to have benefited. How they benefited they never described and it was a very short paper. They never showed up again, they never showed up at any of the conferences. As far as I know they never tried it again.

If they hadn’t read the German paper in 1947, how would they have heard of LSD in the first place?

I’m not quite sure how it got into America. But Sandoz was an international company and I’ve no doubt that people in New York were talking about it, and the Americans were always great at getting hold of new things.

Why were you so interested in it?

Difficult to answer that. When you’re working in a mental hospital your main problem is the enormous weight of patients. In a number of cases you’ve got the [ones that] you’d really like to do something for but you never have the time. Here was a drug which – I wouldn’t say it was a short cut to the unconscious – but it was certainly helping people to understand themselves at a deeper level. And it seemed to me that this was a worthwhile approach. And I think it was also just a curiosity about this extraordinary substance. Because it doesn’t work like any other drug. You don’t get the same results in the patient one day to the next, which would rule it out in terms of drugs where the effect is expected to be the same. At one time I compared it with penicillin and I thought let’s look at an ampoule of penicillin and an ampoule of LSD.  The effect of penicillin as far as we know is independent of what the patient thinks or does. Whereas the mood of the patient who is being given LSD is a vital factor in what happens under the drug. The co-operation between the observer and the therapist, the patient and the drug, these three, form an extraordinary combination. And the other thing that I was working on at the time was the influence of the observer.

Were there any other drugs around where the mood of the patient would affect the result?

I think the work that Shorvil and co were doing with abreactive drugs – the same applied to a lesser extent. But I think it was [different] with LSD

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