CIA Experimented with LSD on Unsuspecting French Villagers

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

   CIA peppered bread with LSD in 1951
            Image: The Telegraph

Yesterday the UK newspaper The Telegraph published an article revealing that a mysterious 1951 outbreak of mass hysteria in France was actually the result of a secret experiment performed by the Central Intelligence Agency when they spiked the village's bread with LSD:

The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) still haunts the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the Gard, southeast France.

On August 16, 1951, the inhabitants were suddenly racked with frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire.

One man tried to drown himself, screaming that his belly was being eaten by snakes. An 11-year-old tried to strangle his grandmother. Another man shouted: "I am a plane", before jumping out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs. He then got up and carried on for 50 yards. Another saw his heart escaping through his feet and begged a doctor to put it back. Many were taken to the local asylum in strait jackets. . .

Mr Albarelli came across CIA documents while investigating the suspicious suicide of Frank Olson, a biochemist working for the SOD who fell from a 13th floor window two years after the Cursed Bread incident. One note transcribes a conversation between a CIA agent and a Sandoz official who mentions the "secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit" and explains that it was not "at all" caused by mould but by diethylamide, the D in LSD.

This, if true, would have been just one of many such experiments that were carried out in the years during and just after WWII (see videos below). As I wrote previously, the use of experiments on unsuspecting soldiers and civilians is an ugly period in US history:

The 1994 Rockefeller Senate Report Examining Biological Experimentation on U.S. Military found that for fifty years the Department of Defense had intentionally exposed military personnel to dangerous substances without their knowledge or consent including mustard gas, radiation, and hallucinogenic drugs.

The Church Committee hearings of the 1970s exposed many such abuses and the CIA's activities were reigned in. There is currently concern, particularly given the torture tactics employed in the "war on terror," that the CIA has been granted a level of autonomy that could lead to many of the Pre-Church hearing abuses. Last week Amnesty International released a document stating that CIA impunity has caused "immeasurable damage" to human rights around the world:

Some 500 days have passed since the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) confirmed publicly for the first time that the agency had used "water-boarding" against three detainees held in secret custody, and more than 2,000 days have gone by since the CIA Inspector General found that two of the detainees had been subjected to this technique more than 150 times between them.

Again, no one has been brought to justice for authorizing or carrying out this torture or other interrogation methods and detention conditions employed in the CIA program that violated the international prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This failure flies in the face of an explicit and absolute obligation under international treaties such as the UN Convention against Torture to carry out full investigations into human rights violations and ensure accountability, including specifically by referring for prosecution every case of torture where the accused is not extradited.

It's unknown what activities are currently being employed by covert agents today, though if we wish to avoid similar revelations fifty years from now it would seem that pushing for transparency and accountability would be a wise course of action.

American LSD Experiment on Soldiers:

British LSD Experiment on Soldiers:

Czech LSD Experiment on Military Officers:

Post-WWII American Biological Weapons Experiments:

Update: Heather Horn at The Atlantic Wire questions the accuracy of the Telegraph's reporting in this case:

The Awl's Alex Balk (whose primary reaction is "really?") digs up a post by a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, Derek Lowe. Lowe says the Telegraph story is hogwash. He's particularly skeptical of a passage saying the village went crazy because of "diethylamide, the D in LSD." Diethylamide "isn't a separate compound," and "LSD isn't some sort of three-component mixture," Lowe scoffs: "I'd like to hear this guy explain to me what the 'S' stands for." Furthermore, diethylamides don't provoke hallucination. It's clear to him that "neither the author of this new book, nor the people at the Telegraph, nor the supposed scientific 'source' of this quote, know anything about chemistry." He's not dismissing this wild story out of hand, but he doesn't think this particular narrative makes sense.

Update II: A reader pointed to this article at Wired detailing the CIA's obsession with LSD in the early 1950s:

In 1953, the Agency attempted to purchase ten kilograms of LSD, supposedly for testing purposes. This was enough for over a hundred million doses. . . Certainly the CIA had something of an obsession with LSD, at one point believing it was an effective truth drug. In the infamous Operation Midnight Climax, unwitting clients at CIA brothels in New York and San Francisco were slipped LSD and then monitored through one-way mirrors to see how they reacted. They even killed an elephant with LSD. Colleagues were also considered fair game for secret testing, to the point where a memo was issued instructing that the punch bowls at office Christmas parties were not to be spiked.

But the LSD testing ended in tragedy - as recounted in the book of the Men Who Stare at Goats - with the death of scientist Frank Olson after he fell to his death. The findings have suggested homicide, but the case has never been resolved.

Update III: TIME magazine revealed in 1977 that the CIA ran bordellos to test LSD's effects on libido and mind control and conducted LSD experiments in Europe and Asia:

Drugs were sought to incapacitate entire buildings full of people, poison food to create "confusion-anxiety-fear," cause headaches and earaches, and produce amnesia in foreign spies after interrogations or CIA agents who were about to retire. To administer the drugs surreptitiously, CIA experimenters developed pencil-like injectors and small spray guns. . .

In the early 1950s, the CIA tried to put some of its new findings to use, sending special interrogation teams to Europe and Asia. One team gave intravenous injections of an unidentified drug to three European agents of dubious loyalty and questioned them for eleven days before deciding that they were not turncoats.

More like this

I thought there were accounts of gangrenous ergotism from Pont-St.-Esprit as well, though.

That was the official explanation at the time. For example, the British Medical Journal published a report in 1951 stating that ergot poisoning caused the mass hysteria and the death of four people in Pont-St.-Esprit (pdf here). These documents would seem to place this original explanation in doubt.

"neither the author of this new book, nor the people at the Telegraph, nor the supposed scientific 'source' of this quote, know anything about chemistry"

My natural tendency is to be doubtful of anything published in the Daily Telegraph, but that counter-argument doesn't hold any water, either. According to the article, the note described a conversation between a CIA agent and a Sandoz official, so nobody claims either of them necessarily was a chemist or an expert. And while it is true that diethylamide (the 'D') by itself (it does exist as a separate compound) wouldn't cause hallucinations, neither would Lysergic acid (the 'LS' - b.t.w., the 'S' stands for 'Saeure', German for acid) by itself. Lysergic acid naturally occurs in ergots, but not in conjunction with diethylamide - so the statement in question might be a 'layman's terms' version of that connection.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 12 Mar 2010 #permalink

Oops, sorry - that should of course 'diethylamine' in my earlier post, not 'diethylamide'. The separate compound is diethylamine, in conjunction with lysergic acid it becomes lysergic acid dietyhlamide. So I made exactly the same error Mr. Lowe was criticizing in that un-named Sandoz official. (In my defense, it's early in the morning.)

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 12 Mar 2010 #permalink

My natural tendency is to be doubtful of anything published in the Daily Telegraph, but that counter-argument doesn't hold any water, either.

It wouldn't be surprising if the CIA did this considering the weird paranormal stuff that went on.

@EMJ: This is absolutely nothing. Did you hear about the CIA's secret MK-ULTRA program in the 50-60s? They tested LSD and many other dangerous substances on unconsenting students at many universities through the US and Canada without their knowledge. One of the most despicable parts of MK-ULTRA was a series of illegal experiments done by a psychiatrist at McGill University in Canada (the university I attend) on his patients. He doped them, kidnapped them and electro-shocked their heads in his research center to test the effects of sensory deprivation. Some of the patients died and many of those who survived suffered severe mental problems afterwards. He was eventually caught but the kangaroo court that was supposed to send him in jail let him walk free instead. His "research" is today being used to extract information from prisoners at Gitmo and other illegal prisons. Read Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, she talks about this in the very first chapter.

The "special odour" reported in the BMJ article was reported by Fuller in "The Day of St. Anthony's Fire" as that of "mice," in case anyone's keeping score. I haven't had time to reread the whole thing.

I'd be interested to see whether this provides any actual documentation: , but my library access has lapsed.