1951–1960s: Dr. Henry K. Beecher, CIA collaborator in use of psychoactive drugs for torture

The Dorr Professor of Anesthesiology at Harvard University, whose reputation as a paragon of ethical research rests on his article in the New England Journal of Medicine (1966) in which he listed 50 unethical U.S. clinical trials. The career of Dr. Henry K. Beecher is a cautionary tale. What follows will most likely shock most readers as I was shocked to discover the secret crimes that Henry Beecher concealed throughout his lifetime.

“At home and abroad for over a decade, Beecher pursued this secret military research, testing powerful psychotropic drugs, mescaline and LSD, on unwitting human subjects, and thus drinking deep from Dachau’s poisoned well.” (McCoy, 2007 p.410)

Beecher studied the reports about mescaline experiments conducted at Dachau and others at Mauthausen concentration camps. He then crisscrossed Europe in 1951, consulting with the foremost experts in mescaline and LSD research, including Walter Hoffman at Sandoz in Switzerland. Beecher’s explorations with hallucinatory drugs “went beyond the medical realm”; it crossed over to the realm of torture. Beecher, who was fully aware of the ethical standards mandated by the Nuremberg Code, violated every one of its precepts. At Heidelberg, the immorality of his research was pointed out to Beecher by the Chief U.S. Surgeon for Europe, General Guy B. Denit, who reminded him that: “as a physician under the Geneva Convention he could have nothing officially to do with the use of drugs for the purposes in mind.” By stages, McCoy writes, “Dr. Beecher’s hunt for appropriate collaborators led him full circle back to the Nazi war criminals he had encountered in reading Dr. Ploetner’s report on Gestapo drug tests at Dachau.” (McCoy, 2007, p. 411)

The evidence of Beecher’s collusion is contained in his own documents on file at Harvard. Beecher transferred from the realm of military medicine to Military Intelligence at the notorious U.S. interrogation center in Germany. Oberursel, renamed Camp King after 1948, was the site at which the CIA’s most brutal torture techniques were used; “a staff of ex-Gestapo soldiers and former Nazi doctors, including the notorious deputy Reich health leader Kurt Blome, were employed in inhumane interrogations of Soviet defectors and double agents.” (McCoy, p.411)

The site was used by the CIA and Navy psychiatrist Samuel Thompson and Professor Richard Wend, a University of Rochester psychologist to test dangerous drug combinations on Russian captives under a protocol stating “disposal of the body is not a problem.” At Camp King Beecher discussed possible drug uses for interrogation with staffers including Captain Malcolm Hilty, chief interrogator and Major Hart, head of a “brutal interrogation team” known as the “rough boys.”(McCoy, 412)

Upon his return from Europe, Beecher joined the U.S. intelligence interrogation project with “top secret” security clearance and a Pentagon grant to study “Response of Normal Men to LSD Derivatives” He wrote a secret report warning about LSD’s severe effects, indicating that he planned to intensify his LSD experiments at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital. “We need to know the effects of larger doses, prolonged administration of small doses and so on. . .” McCoy writes:

“In his decade of secret drug testing, Dr. Beecher sacrificed his subjects to the cause of national security. During his European travels in 1951–1952, he had sought expendable subjects for secret interrogation experiments. Back home at Harvard, Beecher, though aware of the drug’s painful effects from the Sandoz report, tested powerful LSD and LAE at doses that inflicted the trauma of “paranoid” reaction and “acute panic” on his unknowing human subjects — a “psychosis in miniature” that, he said coolly, “offers interesting possibilities.” (McCoy, p. 413)

Beecher had a thorough knowledge in advance that these drugs cause serious trauma. Indeed he had read a Sandoz report warning that LSD produced “a peculiar personality disturbance similar to ‘split personality,’” and induced a “tendency to pathological reactions (hysterical attacks, trances, epileptic fits).” Nevertheless, he proceeded to put the lives of unwitting patients at risk by giving them dangerous high doses — all in violation of the Hippocratic Oath and the Nuremberg Code. He did so, because in his elitist world view, the human subjects were expendable; whereas the experiment offered “interesting possibilities.” (McCoy cites Beecher)

Beecher found a solution to what he termed the “considerable problem in the use of healthy volunteers [to test] synthetic agents in the mescaline group” — that is, obtaining their consent. He indicated that “we have an almost ideal set-up here” at Massachusetts General Hospital. Beecher was an anesthesiologist; one has to wonder just what the “ideal set-up” at Harvard-affiliated hospitals was /is for physicians to readily obtain unwitting hospital patients as guinea pigs in high risk experimental research with a high likelihood of causing those patients harm.

Back in the U.S. Beecher consulted with Dr. Walter Schreiber, whose experiments on concentration camp inmates “usually resulted in a slow and agonizing death.” Paperclip Rogues Schreiber had been Camp King’s chief doctor until he was hired by the Air Force to its School of Aviation Medicine. But in 1952 Drew Pearson exposed his Nuremberg rap sheet listing his crimes, at which point the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency arranged his visa and a job in Argentina. Henry Beecher described Schreiber as an “intelligent and helpful” German physician.

Prof. McCoy notes that Beecher maintained a perfect cover, “minimizing public knowledge of his military research by publishing a single LSD study as third author — and even that was packaged innocuously as last in a series of drug tests.” Beecher insisted on absolute secrecy; at his request, his report on his voyage into the intelligence netherworld (1951), was stamped “TOP SECRET” and not declassified until 1977, months after his death. Throughout his life, Beecher concealed his CIA experiments in torture; all the while, he sat on influential biomedical ethics bodies, such as the National Research Council, setting the U.S. research agenda.

When controversy erupted over LSD tests at Harvard in the 1960s, Beecher demonstrated stunning hypocrisy as he played the moralist; he even condemned Dr. Walter N. Pahnke (one of Timothy Leary’s colleagues), for using the drug to ease the pain of terminally ill patients. Beecher admonished him by stating: “There is an abundance of evidence that LSD can produce, has produced, lasting, serious damage to young people.” (McCoy cites Beecher, 1969, pp. 21–26; Acid Dreams, 1985) Of course the evidence of “serious damage” didn’t prevent Beecher from experimenting on patients without their knowledge or consent, using high LSD doses.

Even exposés of CIA mind control abuses have put him on a pedestal, as a “hero” of medical ethics. His mythological legacy is commemorated with the annual award of the Henry K. Beecher Prize in Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School. The award’s 1993 recipient, Yale bioethics professor Jay Katz, clearly had no inkling about Beecher’s Cold War activities when he praised Beecher for “the moral passion that punctuated his every word” in that 1966 essay. In 1966 Beecher told TIME magazine that he was “concerned about experiments that are designed for the ultimate good of society in general but may well do harm to the subject involved.” Beecher stated that since World War II, the numbers of patients used as unwitting experimental subjects was increasing at alarming rates and that the increase was causing “grave consequences”; but he declined to name any physicians, hospitals, or universities involved in such experiments.

Here is how his “portrait“ on Mass General Hospital’s website sanitizes Beecher’s medical crimes:

“[After WWII] He became a consultant to the Surgeon General of the United States Army, Public Health Service, Air Force, and Navy, all at different periods of time. Dr. Beecher began his contribution to clinical pharmacology during World War II. It was then that his investigation of the relationship between subjective psychological states and objective drug responses began. In his book Pain in Men Wounded in Battle Dr. Beecher pondered how badly wounded men could not feel pain despite receiving no treatment for hours. In turn, he began to advocate for the placebo effect to be tested in all clinical trials. Dr. Beecher is now considered by many to be the father of the double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trial. After studying the Nazi medical experiments conducted during World War II, Dr. Beecher began to realize that investigational subjects’ rights were also commonly systematically abridged in the United States. In 1966 he published his article. . .”

The medical authorities and commentators writing the literature about ethical conduct in medical research have demonstrated willful ignorance about Beecher’s very dark side; they have chosen to maintain the myth about the man by not probing his files at Harvard which have been available since 1977. For example, an article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (2001) attributes a “deep Christian faith” as the catalyst for “the most influential single paper ever written about experimentation involving human subjects.” (Harkness, pp. 365–366).

Biographers and historians alike should delve deeper before rushing to canonize cognitive scientists who worked during the Cold War. If we do not investigate this past and the ways that it has shaped our present, then we cannot correct or prevent its reoccurrence. John Marks found that nearly every scientist on the frontiers of brain research and behavioral psychology had been approached by agents from the secret intelligence. Psychiatrists and psychologists were especially eager to collaborate:

they experimented with dangerous and unknown techniques on people who had no idea what was happening. [They] systematically violated the free will and mental dignity of their subjects and like the Germans, they chose to victimize special groups of people whose existence they considered, out of prejudice and convenience, less worthy than their own. (Manchurian Candidate, Chapter 1)