VA hospital’s LSD experiments sped brother’s fall into schizophrenia, Lee’s Summit man fears

Brother believes LSD experiments led sibling to psychosis

Vietnam veteran Robert Rowland was treated at the VA hospital in Topeka four decades ago when LSD experiments were being conducted by VA psychiatrist Ken Godfrey. Robert's brother, Michael Rowland, says his brother's mental problems were a "preven
Up Next
Vietnam veteran Robert Rowland was treated at the VA hospital in Topeka four decades ago when LSD experiments were being conducted by VA psychiatrist Ken Godfrey. Robert's brother, Michael Rowland, says his brother's mental problems were a "preven

Back then it was hard not to laugh, talking about LSD.

“It was like having my own TV set, all these little colored lights. ... I had this amazing experience looking down at myself … (and) at some point while I was up there I remembered what I heard about this chap who never made it back.”

Among those listening and laughing on the 1965 audio recording was Karl Menninger, one of the giants of psychiatry and co-founder of the Menninger Clinic, as he presided over an academic colloquium on hallucinogenic drugs.

The speaker on the tape, a medical student who had participated in LSD and peyote experiments, went on:

“I was still able to realize what was happening, I just wasn’t able to control it. Dr. Hammond (a researcher who also participated), on the other hand, was in total rational control of himself —”

So he says,” Menninger interjected, to more laughter.

When Michael Rowland of Lee’s Summit listens to the tape, now part of the Kansas Historical Society archives, it sounds “like Kansas farmers around a potbellied stove in the winter.” But the jokes and loose banter are painful.

Rowland thinks his late brother, Vietnam veteran Robert Rowland, was propelled into a post-war life with schizophrenia by experimental LSD in the VA hospital in Topeka more than four decades ago. The Navy veteran was already mentally wounded when he went to the VA for help.

The LSD experiments were conducted by VA psychiatrist Ken Godfrey, one of the doctors who had presented on his research in the 1965 colloquium at the Menninger Clinic, then in Topeka.

Any records that would show whether Rowland was part of the LSD research are either missing or don’t exist. But he stayed at the Topeka VA hospital briefly in 1972, and a subsequent doctor’s note, recorded when Rowland visited the Kansas City VA hospital, includes this scrawled entry:

“The (patient) feels that on last admission he was given LSD and suffered hallucinations.”

Whatever happened, Robert Rowland’s descent through a failed veterans’ mental health system after Vietnam coincided with America’s rocky romance with LSD.

Recklessness ruled. The military and CIA lusted for a mind-control drug. Staid society recoiled from the counterculture rebellion featuring Harvard’s Timothy Leary, writer Ken Kesey, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and so many others who embraced psychedelics.

It all blew up on what was potentially life-changing research into the real mental health possibilities with LSD.

“LSD … is probably the most powerful psychoactive drug in history,” said Brad Burge with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz, Calif., and director of the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference. “Because of the depth and duration of its effects and its impact on culture.”

Only recently have researchers begun to return to working with LSD, seeing promise in aiding alcohol addiction and easing anxiety in people facing life-threatening illnesses, Burge said.

But Michael Rowland’s fear that a possible LSD experiment could have lit his brother’s full-blown psychosis in the early 1970s is shared by today’s researchers.

For someone predisposed to psychosis, “(LSD) could absolutely trigger a (psychotic) break,” Burge said. In today’s research, he said, “anyone with a psychotic disorder or personality disorder is not permitted to participate.”

The same precaution didn’t prevail 40 and 50 years ago.

“It’s not just my brother,” Rowland said. “There were others. What happened to them?”

‘Tragic life’

By 1969, researchers in psychedelics apparently desired a secluded venue to share their work.

And the Menninger Foundation accommodated them, convening the first of at least four annual meetings called the Conference on Altered States of Consciousness.

Little publicity accompanied it, by design, as if bunkered against the turmoil surrounding psychedelic drugs.

Admission to the conferences “was by invitation only” at a church camp outside tiny Council Grove in Morris County, Kan., some 50 miles southwest of Topeka.

“No public stands were taken,” participant James Fadiman of Stanford University wrote after the second session. “No press releases made; no dissidents stormed the podium to protest our foreign or domestic policy.”

Evidently, Karl Menninger’s interest in the possibilities in such drugs had grown since the 1965 colloquium.

At times, on the recording, he had been almost dismissive of the idea.

“Our session will begin,” he announced at the start, “on the subject of — what are those drugs called?” Someone is heard suggesting “hallucinogenic.” Another says, “psychedelic.” “Psychedelic drugs,” Menninger continued. “These conscious-altering drugs.”

Later in the recording he questioned the enthusiasm of drug companies over improved treatment of mental illnesses if it meant “American citizens in larger numbers can now all walk around half-doped.”

But he also acknowledged the momentum that would lead to the 1969 conference. Rather than developing drugs that simply “quiet people,” the researchers in the room were picking up where he saw the drug companies lacking — exploring “these possibly very important altering drugs.”

But just as fate was dooming that work, it also was bringing down Robert Rowland.

The fresh-faced brother in the picture Michael Rowland has from that time was not OK. He only looks good, smiling in his white Navy uniform with the blue neckerchief, home from Vietnam in the backyard of their parents’ Raytown home.

“My brother was living a tragic life,” said Michael Rowland, now 71. “It was a preventable tragedy.”

He said his brother would’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, if that terminology had existed then. Robert Rowland had been stationed in Da Nang, halfway between Hanoi and Saigon, in a support role at an ammunition depot. It often came under mortar attack and he saw “buddies lose their flesh,” Michael Rowland said.

He’d gone AWOL and then obtained an honorable medical discharge.

VA doctors’ reports listed concerns with anxiety and tantrums, his “passive-aggressive” personality and underlying depression. They saw “paranoid features” but no evidence of psychosis while in the service. A 1969 assessment noted his current anxiety was approaching schizophrenia “as a potential likelihood.” By the early 1970s, he was drinking excessively, the notes show.

One January night in 1972, he called his parents in distress to say he was lost in Topeka. The parents drove from Raytown, Michael Rowland said, to look for him.

They found him sitting in his Volkswagen Beetle outside a hospital, naked.

Michael Rowland, who worked for the National Center for Health Statistics, was living in Washington, D.C., at the time. And his brother, after his Topeka hospital stay, drove to his home unexpectedly in 1974, arriving “wild-eyed,” Rowland said.

Years of hospitalizations and medications followed, along with an erratic work history, as Robert Rowland lived with his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2012. As executor of his brother’s estate, Michael Rowland became immersed in the depths of Robert Rowland’s difficulties as a veteran with mental illness.

He began to research the records of Robert Rowland’s life, getting assistance from U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s office. So many records came available, he said, except for a gap in the early 1970s.

The time Robert Rowland spent in Topeka — the time that he claimed he had received LSD — “became a detective story,” Michael Rowland said.

450 patients

The Kansas Historical Society’s archives have a 35-page application in 1969 by Godfrey to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare for funding to aid research in therapeutic use of LSD.

Godfrey lists himself as the assistant chief of the psychiatric section of the Topeka VA hospital. His partner in the research was Harold M. Voth, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at the Menninger Foundation.

The application notes that the Topeka VA hospital at that time was four years into a pilot study, involving some 450 patients, in which Godfrey was looking at the therapeutic potential of LSD in psychotherapy.

But VA officials replying to questions from The Star said the agency’s historians had found no other records or reports on patients or outcomes.

Roy Menninger, a nephew of Karl Menninger and the clinic and foundation’s president from 1967 to 1993, said the clinic “did not do anything with LSD that I know of.” Voth’s resume in the 1969 application listed no LSD research. The clinic moved to Houston in 2003.

The few months that Robert Rowland was a patient in the Topeka VA hospital, one VA official said, might make it unlikely that he was involved in the research.

The researchers in the grant application noted there were risks. Adverse effects of the drug had been reported, Godfrey and his team wrote, including suicide and the precipitation of psychoses. “(But) it is our impression these unfavorable results occurred outside a well-controlled medical setting.”

Godfrey, who died in 1991, was one of many researchers looking into LSD’s potential to help break down alcohol addiction.

But after some 1,000 LSD experiments in the U.S. involving as many as 40,000 people, research was coming to a halt in the early 1970s. The military’s Cold War experimentation of the 1950s, even at times secretly drugging officers to gauge their reactions, had gained notoriety.

Too many researchers in the 1960s, Burge said, weren’t going about their work objectively, but were caught up in the high-profile battles over the LSD, either promoting it or demonizing it. “In almost all them,” he said, “careful scientific method was lacking.”

The presidential administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, fearing the radical uprisings of the day, pressed federal regulators into the fray. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 criminalized LSD and ended all research except under close scrutiny of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The DEA even went to colleges and knocked doors down and confiscated all psychedelics,” Burge said.

“The conventional wisdom,” retired Purdue University Professor David E. Nichols wrote in 2013, “quickly became, ‘if you want to kill your scientific career, work on psychedelics.’ 

“There are few, if any other events in science,” Nichols wrote, “that can parallel what happened to LSD.”

A brother’s questions

The researchers in psychedelics aren’t so reclusive anymore as those who gathered on the Kansas prairie almost 50 years ago.

Next spring, Psychedelic Science 2017 promises to gather doctors, students, policymakers and artists to a six-day international conference of workshops in California that will include a San Francisco Bay sunset cruise and “the world’s first Psychedelic Comedy Banquet.”

They are hoping to bring responsible research into the light and leave behind psychedelic drugs’ reckless past.

But Rowland wants the federal government and the VA to re-examine its history.

When he hears Godfrey describing his research on the tape, and he hears the other doctors and students along with Menninger chiming in, Rowland doesn’t doubt they believed in the possibilities of what they were doing so many years ago.

“They’re well-meaning people,” he said. “They’re not evil people. They think this (psychedelic research) can be so helpful.”

But he wants help clearing the mysteries they left behind.

“Nobody seems to want to publish any outcomes,” Rowland said. “Where are the advocates for these people (who were treated) at the VA? Why aren’t they getting the help they need?”