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The hospital that put people into a coma as a treatment

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Doctor Harry Bailey promised people that he could cure them of drug addiction, depression, schizophrenia, anorexia, and nearly anything else. Then he sedated them for weeks. And he kept this up for 17 years.

Chelmsford Hospital's deep sleep ward was a quiet place to work. Aside from the staff, and the occasional visitor, everyone at the Australian private hospital ward was unconscious all the time. The doctor in charge, Harry Bailey, believed that a "long rest" was the ideal way to heal anyone of anything. Prolonged spells of unconsciousness would allow the brain to unlearn destructive patterns, and so would cure people with schizophrenia, PMS, or depression. It would also help people break out of unhealthy behavioral patterns, like drug addiction, anorexia, or compulsive behavior. And if you wanted to take off a few pounds, deep sleep therapy could help with that as well.

His philosophy resulted in two deaths a year inside his hospital, every year, for nearly two decades. Between 1962 and 1979, about two people a year failed to wake up from the coma that massive doses of barbituates put them in. Others died or were injured due to the electroconvulsive therapy that was performed on them while they were unconscious but without the muscle relaxers that would keep them from moving due to the shock. Others were injured by the sheer lack of motion.


Depending on who you ask, the death toll due to the therapy is in the low 20s or the high 80s. Some patients went on to die of illnesses that may have been caused by their time in Chelmsford. A high percentage of the deep sleep patients went on to kill themselves. Others just had terrible experiences. While the luckiest patients went to sleep and woke up missing no time, others experienced hallucinations and woke up covered in their own urine and feces. While some visitors said the deep sleep ward was peaceful, others talked about how it was filled with constant incoherent moaning.

What made Chelmsford a national scandal was not that this happened, but that the Australian government did nothing about it. Despite the deaths, and the live patients' complaints, the hospital passed inspection. It stayed operational when a 14-year-old boy died during the therapy. It even stayed operational when a man had second thoughts, accepted a pill that he was told would "calm him down" so he could talk about his therapy, and woke up days later. The man tried to press kidnapping and wrongful imprisonment charges.


It was only when the rest of the doctors at the hospital, horrified by the deaths, threatened to quit that the practice was stopped. A few years later it became the subject of a television special and an ongoing national scandal. Investigations were opened up against the doctors in charge, but they were so prolonged and scattered that after over a decade a court stated that the delays amounted to a government misuse of the system and dismissed some of the charges. Doctor Bailey himself committed suicide after investigation revealed that the research into sedation therapy on which he'd based his treatment was actually about the benefit of a few hours sedation. The average stay at Chelmsford was 14 days.

Image: Agriculture And Stock Department, Publicity Branch.

[Via The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, PIAC]