Worst Science Article of the Week: The CIA Dosed a French Town With LSD!

By Smriti Rao | March 15, 2010 12:05 pm

mindcontrolThe CIA’s experiments with mind-control and hallucinogenic drugs are well documented. It’s hard to forget about programs like Operation Midnight Climax, in which the agency studied the effects of LSD by dosing unsuspecting clients at brothels. But did the agency go so far as to send an entire French village on an acid trip that killed a few people and institutionalized a bunch more? According to The Telegraph, the CIA did just that in 1951.

For years, people familiar with “the incident of the cursed bread” (or le pain maudit) have subscribed to the theory that villagers in Saint-Pont-Esprit in Southern France suffered massive delusions because they all ate bread contaminated by ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus. After eating bread from a local baker, the villagers reported such delusions as the conviction that they were missing body parts or had animals in their stomachs.

Now, The Telegraph reports that the incident was not “ergotism” caused by the fungus, as previously believed, but was actually a bad trip caused by the CIA, which had spiked the village bread with LSD, or maybe just sprayed LSD into the air. Quite a story, huh? Too bad it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

The always credulous Telegraph reports that the discovery was made by investigative journalist H. P. Albarelli Jr., who published a book on the CIA’s research. Albarelli claimed the outbreak was the result of a covert experiment carried out by the CIA and the U.S. army’s top secret Special Operations Division (SOD) at the height of the cold war.

The Telegraph reports:

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.

The Telegraph’s article immediately drew sharp responses from other journalists, who dismissed the report as bunkum. David Steven of The Global Dashboard points out that Albarelli’s theories were rejected out of hand by Steven Kaplan, a history professor at Cornell University and a noted bread expert who has written a book on the incident.

Terming the report “incoherent and harebrained,” Kaplan told France 24:

I have numerous objections to this paltry evidence against the CIA. First of all, it’s clinically incoherent: LSD takes effects in just a few hours, whereas the inhabitants showed symptoms only after 36 hours or more. Furthermore, LSD does not cause the digestive ailments or the vegetative effects described by the townspeople.…

It is absurd, this idea of transmitting a very toxic drug by putting it in bread. As for pulverizing it [for ingestion through the air], that technology was not even possible at that time. Most compellingly, why would they choose the town of Pont-Saint-Esprit to conduct these tests? It was half-destroyed by the US Army during fighting with the Germans in the Second World War. It makes no sense.

The report also came under fire for not getting its science right. Derek Lowe, a chemist who has worked in several major pharmaceutical companies, points to the reporter’s assertion that the hallucinations were caused by diethylamide, the D in LSD, as incorrect.

He writes:

Laughter may now commence. For the non-chemists in the audience, diethylamide isn’t a separate compound; it’s the name of a chemical group. And LSD isn’t some sort of three-component mixture; it’s the diethylamide derivative of the parent compound, lysergic acid. (I’d like to hear this guy explain to me what the “S” stands for)

In short, neither the author of this new book, nor the people at the Telegraph, nor the supposed scientific “source” of this quote, knows anything about chemistry. This is like saying that the secret of TNT is a compound called “Tri”. Nonsense.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Whatever Happened To… Mind Control?
DISCOVER: Could an Acid Trip Cure Your OCD?
Discoblog: Worst Science Article of the Week, the archives

Image: iStockphoto

  • Loïc Chauvin

    Before writing your comment,
    – did you read the original article published by the French magazine les Inrockuptibles ?
    – did you read the 700 pages of Albarelli’s book ?
    – did you read the 1000 pages of Kaplan’s book ?
    Probably not. But that doesn’t stop you to jump to conclusion. Which was not the case of the original article which just asked questions ?

    More proofs are needed to confirm the explanation put forward by Albarelli. But, on the other hand, nobody has ever concluded that ergotism was responsible for the “incident”. Nor mercury, nor Panogen, nor mycotoxins, nor anything else… The Pon-Saint-Esprit outbreak is still a mystery.

    If you read carefully Steven Kaplan’s book, you’ll see that doctors and scientists at the time were searching hard for a naturally occuring alcaloid close to LSD, because of the clinical symptoms.

    The bread has been considered the culprit because of the symptoms closed to ergotism and because ergot could often be found in flours. But ergot in flours has not caused any problem in France since 18th century, not even during difficult times like wars (WWI, WWII).

    In his book Steven Kaplan explains that people who didn’t eat the bread of Roch Briand’s bakery were sick. So the bread may have been the culprit out of a better explanation.

    If we are to believe Albarelli’s hypothesis, we don’t know the details : the exact mixture, quantity used, time of the spraying, time of the food poisonning, products poisonned, frequency of the poisonning (one or more), etc., etc. You can’t compare the symptoms with the ones of small dose recreational use.

    The affirmation that technology for pulverizing was not possible at the time is simply not true.

    For the “laughter” about diethylamide, the term is often used as a short name for LSD. Suffice to search the Internet for this word and more than once diethylamide is associated with LSD.
    And it should be noticed that the term quoted by a CIA agent in a declassified document came straight for the horse’s mouth (ie the US Sandoz representative)! It would the same than dismissing all the stories about LSD in the 60s/70s because people generally used the word “acid”.
    To respond to the pedantic question about the S of LSD, it stands for säure from the german word for lysergic acide (Lysergsäure).

    Some people have dismissed the whole story saying that Frank Olson couldn’t have fell from the 13th floor because there’s no 13th floor in hotels. Even if hotels 13th floor is generally numbered 14, the fact is that the Statler Hotel (now Philadelphia Hotel) has a 13th floor.

    I hope that you’ll not dismiss my comment because it’s not written in good english. :-)

  • http://ileneproctor.com Ilene Proctor

    Obviously the facts of Albarelli’s mind-shattering book have nothing to do with the thin thesis of this article. Since I have read the book, and I strongly suggest the writer do the same, he would discover on page 40, that Dr. Abramson ‘ DEVELOPED AN EFFICIENT METHOD OF REDUCING THE SIZE OF AEROSOL DROPLETS SO THAT AN AEROSOL MIST COULD PASS THROUGH THE SMALLEST BRONCIAL TUBE INTO THE LUNGS, ‘ etc. This was in February, 1943
    Oh,and if the writer doesn’t care to carefully read all the facts in any of the 826 pages of the book, he could find that Olson fell from room 1018, that’s the 10th floor, and he doesn’t have to go past the first page to find that fact.
    The last laugh may now commence.

  • http://www.albarelli.net H.P. Albarelli Jr.

    Perhaps you should do some fact checking before you print these type of bogus articles.
    I never spoke to anyone from the Telegraph. Nobody at all from the paper ever called me.
    The statements attributed to Dr. Kaplan are also false. David Steven is flat out wrong, and he never read
    the book in question. I offered Steven a free copy overnighted to his home but he declined, and said he would buy his own, but this was said after he wrote his blog piece that misquotes Dr. Kaplan. The quote and section from Derek Lowe is laughable. He works for “several major pharmaceutical companies” — perhaps one of those is Sandoz. For those who don’t know it, Sandoz was the supplier of LSD to the CIA from 1949 through to late 1953. The LSD given to Frank Olson came from the Sandoz company according to the CIA. The first people on the scene at Pont St. Esprit to ‘investigate’ were from the Sandoz company. A coincidence? Hardly. If I were so inclined, I would nominate the DISCOVER article above as the “worst science article of the year.”

  • Michelle Okrafka

    Gee it seems Mr. Albarelli is desperate to discredit this article. He’s almost vitriolic in his condemnation and yet funnily enough doesn’t offer any real logical rebuttal – preferring instead to simply throw out labels such as “bogus”, “laughable” and “false”. These are the standard debate tactics of someone who has no actual evidence to fall back on and so resort to name-calling. I’m surprised he didn’t call all his detractors “poopy-heads”.

    For the record, the article above never stated that the Telegraph spoke to Albarelli. If the statements attributed to Dr. Kaplan are false, then perhaps Mr. Albarelli can provide evidence of that (David Steven’s blog quotes Kaplan just as his statement appears in the original France24 article – therefore if there is an error, it’s on the part of France24 not David Steven). If David Steven is “flat out wrong”, perhaps Mr. Albarelli can tell us why (and David Steven in his blog says that he did NOT decline an offer of a free copy of the book). As for his condemnation of Dr. Kaplan, whatever his background it doesn’t negate the truth or falsity of his statements. He even goes so far as to try and connect Dr. Kaplan with the conspiracy! This kind of bad logic is all too common amongst conspiracy theorists.

  • m witley

    I am puzzled as to why no one calls for Albarelli Jr. to produce the documents he uncovered which are supposed to support the LSD hypothesis. Are they reproduced in the book?
    I see no documents on his website related to the Saint-Pont-Esprit incident. Any serious discussion of the CIA’s involvement would certainly require the free and openly public viewing of the materials in question. My suspicion is that at the most they may tenuously link the CIA to Saint-Pont-Esprit, but there is no way to make any objective judgment without being able to view them.

  • P Claeys

    A visit to Wikipedia will provide a more plausable answer. It is consistent with the delayed effects after eating the bread, and why other people got sick. This was most likely cause by eating food (Bread, etc.) made from grains that were intentionally poisoned. Unfortunately, chemical compounds including Mercury and Stricnine were commonly used to make the seeds poisonous to rodents or other pests that might otherwise consume the seed grains. They could therefore be stored for long periods unprotected. A search on Google for seed grain poisonings will turn up examples.

  • P Claeys

    As for Frank Olsen’s suicide, that could have been a consequence of experimentation with LSD in uncontrolled or hostile conditions. A famous and oddly appropriate example is the daughter of Art Linkletter, who jumped/fell from a high window, and died, while under the influence of LSD.

  • P Claeys

    Seed Grains were also treated with fungicides to make them less likely to rot when planted, increasing the yield of healthy sprouts.

  • http://globaldashboard.org David Steven

    For context, it’s probably worth reading my original email to Mr Albarelli:

    “I have been following up on the Telegraph article that cites your work (link below). I am quite down on [e.g. critical of] the article itself. Indeed, my first question to you would be: did the journalist speak to you? As for your broader points, it seems to me that no one has actually read your original argument. Is it possible to send me the extract from your book that deals with the poisoning incident? Best wishes, David.”

  • Ryan

    MKULTRA documents were destroyed to cover up the illegal activities. The reason why some people are skeptical of stories like the Saint-Pont-Esprit episode is due to just that; destruction of evidence. IF unwitting tests were conducted, I would not be surprised, but due to the following information. That does not mean I whole heartedly believe it since I am not too familiar with it, just that the NEED for an air of acceptance regarding the possiblity that the MINDSET and programs to carry out such unwitting psychological testing (chemical, radiological, etc.) existed.

    Saint-Pont-Esprit is just one out of many other issues regarding the whole history of CIA programs: MKDELTA, MKULTRA, MKNAOMI, Artichoke, Operation Midnight Climax and so on. Basic Wikipedia searches will show the extent of the programs that existed. This shows a motive to carry out such malicious testing, which the Saint-Pont-Esprit MAY have been as suggested by the memo and opinions going around now. But to avoid spinning wheels on the French town, let’s consider the following:

    Project MKNAOMI (Wikipedia):
    A 1967 CIA memo which was uncovered by the Church Committee was confirmed to give evidence of at least three covert techniques for attacking and POISONING CROPS that have been examined under field conditions.

    Operation Midnight Climax (Wikipedia):
    The project consisted of a web of CIA-run safehouses in San Francisco, Marin, and New York. It was established in order to study the effects of LSD on UNCONSENTING individuals. Prostitutes on the CIA payroll were instructed to lure clients back to the safehouses, where they were surreptitiously plied with a wide range of substances, including LSD, and monitored behind one-way glass. Several significant operational techniques were developed in this theater, including extensive research into sexual blackmail, surveillance technology, and the possible use of mind-altering drugs in field operations.

    …The file destruction undertaken at the order of CIA Director Richard Helms and former MKULTRA chief Sidney Gottlieb in 1972 makes a full investigation of claims impossible. However, many records did survive the purge. News of the story began to leak following a landmark story by New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh on illegal CIA domestic surveillance. This report triggered Senate Subcommittee hearings which investigated MKULTRA, and brought Operation Midnight Climax to light.

  • User_7

    I really don’t know where I stand on what happened here or the Telegraph article, but the two supposed debunkments cited here hold no water in themselves. Firstly, “LSD takes effect in just a few hours” – Well under an hour actually, but what difference does it make? The theory is that it was a secret dosing, who knows when it happened? Not only are you incorrect, it’s irrelevant! If the bread was eaten 36 hours before effects took place then maybe it wasn’t in the bread. Another mistake by Kaplan is calling it “a very toxic drug”. Well actually there is no evidence to show that LSD is Toxic at active doses. Even High doses – I’ll let you find your own sources on that, they’re all concurrent. “Furthermore, LSD does not cause the digestive ailments or the vegetative effects described by the townspeople”. Have you tried LSD? I have, it’s a very unpredictable drug. I don’t know what effects they described and maybe you’re right but It’s made me feel pretty bad in the stomach and made me sick. I’ve gotten pretty vegetative off it too and I’ve never done a particularly high dose. The thing is it’s all psychological. If it can make you believe you’re ill then it could tell your body you are and imitate all kinds of ailments – or so I believe.

    Well that’s not so bad but Derek Lowe completely misses the point. As Loïc Chauvin said, Diethylamide was just being used as a shorthand for LSD, no one claimed it was a specific compound or even component of LSD! I think Lowe was so proud of his chemistry knowledge that he completely failed to realise this and upon the mention of chemicals, he instantly over analysed things. The Irony of “Laughter may now commence”. I back H.P. Albarelli Jr.’s nomination of this Discover article as “worst science article of the year”, despite remaining unsure of the rest of his suggestions.

    • rosebud8119

      I agree with you 100% on that. I have done LSD in the past. I have taken up to 20-25 hits at a time. lol Yes the more you believe or dwell on something the more it seems to both you. Its like you can create the problem for yourself or choose not to think about it and have it go away.

      As far as transferring it to people by putting it on bread, Why not? I have put and had it a number of different things. Sweet tarts, Chocolates. All types of things. I myself don’t think these people know what they are talking about. Obviously none of them has ever had any dealings with LSD. Seems to me they are just talking outta their ass.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bmr.uk Bryn M. Reeves

    If the ever-so-clever Derek Lowe was familiar with the research of the day into LSD he might realise that the abbreviation “diethylamide” was a common technical short-hand for LSD because it distinguished it from other variations of the parent molecule (e.g. LSA, lysergic acid amide, LAE, lysergic acide ethylamide etc.) which were under investigation at the time. Worst science comment of the thread?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Discoblog

Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »