The Zombie Ward: The chilling story of how ‘depressed’ women were put to sleep for months in an NHS hospital room – leaving mental scars that remain 40 years on
- 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
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.’
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.
‘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.
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
‘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.
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.’The Zombie Ward
Hilary was forced to undergo ECT and displayed to medical students by Sargant as he taught them ‘how to deal with anorexic girls’.
‘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.’
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.’