Thomas A. Ban: The Ewen Cameron Story


Barry Blackwell´s additional comment: Science and the Machiavelli Syndrome


            Two recent postings on INHN have coalesced in my mind to form a concern and concept expressed in the title of this essay. The first (Blackwell 2019) was an attempt to understand and explain the disparity between the pristine professional persona of Ewen Cameron and the public concerns aroused by the MK-ULTRA revelations and the lawsuits it unleashed, creating controversy and conspiracy theories that persist today in the press and on our website.

            The second (Blackwell 2020) was a book review of Poisoner in Chief, a biography of Sidney Gottlieb, Head of the covert CIA program MK-ULTRA that funded part of Cameron’s research designed to develop techniques to explain and compete with alleged communist brainwashing strategies (Kinzer 2019).

            Similarities between the goals and implementation of them by both Cameron and Gottlieb impressed me. Gottlieb sought to understand and duplicate what the CIA believed the communists used to extort information from prisoners and, if necessary, program the brain to replace it. Cameron was concerned with the failure of some mentally ill patients to benefit from either or both psychotherapy and biological treatments.

            These concerns led both men to a common solution: how to erase false or damaging thoughts, ideas or feelings and replace them with new material. In other words, how to create a tabula rasa and then re-program the brain. They shared the same transcendental goal to go beyond the range or limits of everyday knowledge or experience.

            The rewards for such an achievement might be equally impressive. For Gottlieb victory over the communist enemy; for Cameron also helping the national cause but, more importantly, finding a new experimental way to help treatment refractory patients, perhaps worthy of a Nobel Prize. At the time of their involvement Cameron had received many accolades and awards as well as the Presidency of the Canadian, America and World Psychiatric Associations. Gottlieb would receive the highest award the CIA could offer. 

            Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian Renaissance diplomat, widely viewed as Father of modern philosophy and political science, wrote his masterpiece The Prince in 1532 in which he outlined the characteristics, principals and behaviors of an ideal leader. Although some were more admirable than others, when combined into a pattern of behavior the adverb, Machiavellian, is defined by the OED as “scheming and unscrupulous, especially in politics.” Transferring these terms from politics to science is unusual and the reader is at liberty to decide how appropriate that is as an aide to understanding the Cameron-Gottlieb story.

            Below are some quotations from The Prince in bolditalics. (Author’s comments follow in parentheses).

            “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really see who you are.”(Those who knew Cameron and Gottlieb well held them with “princely” approval, perhaps blinding them to questions of integrity).

            The acquisition and use of power may necessitate unethical methods.” (In pursuing transcendent, unusual goals, this might translate to, “the end justifies the means”).           

            If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to feel their vengeance.” (There is little doubt that some of the treatment strategies were injurious, done in semi-secret and in Cameron’s case mostly on severely handicapped individuals who had failed previous treatment, unlikely or unable to  object. There were no clinical, ethical or informed consent guidelines in place).

            “You are not interested in preserving the status quo, only to overthrow it.”(That what they were doing was innovative and unique, justifying going beyond the customary rules, was taken for granted).

            “Whoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”(As noted, implementing the above).

            “There is nothing more important than appearing to be religious.” (Cameron and Gottlieb both grew up in religious families, abandoned that faith but shared strong spiritual beliefs about bettering the needs of mankind; prevailing over communism and finding a novel cure for mental illness).

            “To go beyond the limits of everyday experience.”(Transcendent goals, pushing the boundaries of contemporary knowledge).

            In proposing that Gottlieb and Cameron fulfill the criteria for exhibiting the Machiavelli Syndrome I feel sure some readers may feel offended and for them I cite one final saying from The Prince.

            “A deceitful man will always find plenty ready to be deceived.”(Both Gottlieb and Cameron had charismatic and persuasive personas that bred popularity and perhaps trust but not intimacy, approval but not necessarily understanding. Neither of them, after three years of research, produced a shred of scientific evidence to support a hypothesis or validate an experiment).

            Directed towards leaders and princes, Machiavelli was not concerned with the consequences of failure. Regrets or remorse are not part of his syndrome,  although redemption may be.

            Cameron’s response to exposure was to immediately leave Allan Memorial, along with his CIA associate, either destroying the records or removing them. He took refuge in a VA hospital affiliated with the University, never provided any explanation, rationale or results and ceased research on wiping the brain clean and re-programming, returning to more conventional topics.

            Gottlieb supervised the destruction of all records of MK-ULTRA activity including those in his own office. After a brief re-assignment to other government projects he and his wife undertook a months-long sea voyage, stopping at various ports to perform charitable work. He was recalled to face Congressional scrutiny of CIA activity under a pseudonym and terms of immunity from prosecution negotiated by his attorney, including a 50 year seal on all testimony.

            Some years later Gottlieb faced legal action by the family of a senior CIA colleague who threatened the security of MK-ULTRA and was murdered on Gottlieb’s orders using his favorite method of assassination, a contrived fall from a large height onto a hard surface. Gottlieb died in his sleep in March 1999 as  detectives in New York were preparing the case against him, suspected of suicide by a man who knew more about lethal drugs than anyone in America.

            Cameron died in 1963. According to the Toronto Star “he was found dead under mysterious circumstances after falling off a cliff.”  Many obituaries eulogized his accomplishments but made no mention of his MK-ULTRA work. However, controversy and lawsuits persisted. The Canadian Government announced an “Allan Memorial Institute Depatterned Persons Assistance Plan that provided $100,000 compensation to 77 Cameron patients.” In 2004 a Canadian judge ruled an additional 250 victims were eligible.



Blackwell B. Comments. Thomas A. Ban: The Ewen Cameron Story.  September 12, 2019.

Blackwell B. Review of Steven Kinzer: Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. New York: Henry Holt & Co; 2019. March 19, 2020.

Kinzer S. Poisoner in Chief. New York: Henry Holt & Co; 2019.


August 13, 2020