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Podcast Interview: Dr. Erika Dyck

The history of eugenics in Western Canada is coming under close scrutiny by the University of Saskatchewan’s Dr. Erika Dyck.Dyck is the Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine and her current research compares differences in the way governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan approached the idea of forced sterilization of people with mental illness.

In the early part of the twentieth century, it was thought that forced sterilization of “mentally defective” people would prevent the weakening of the gene pool. Alberta enacted eugenics legislation in 1928 and repealed it in 1972. Neighbouring Saskatchewan never enacted similar laws.

“Research suggests that Alberta's laws were a bit unique even in the context of American examples or even European examples,” says Dyck. “They didn’t require informed consent for a much longer period than any other jurisdiction that we can find so far, which singles it out as a bit of a strange case.”

Dyck’s research highlights the contradiction between the mandatory sterilization policy and the coinciding illegality of contraception and abortion.

“There were some women who actually wanted to be sterilized after they had had children and they were restricted from getting those kinds of surgeries, and yet there were other women who were sterilized without their consent or knowledge,” Dyck explained. “It really demonstrates something really quite interesting about who gets access to these kinds of services and then who has them forced upon them.”

Dyck is also looking at the effects of long-stay mental hospital closures on patients and employees.

Dyck hopes to have begun a book on Saskatchewan and Alberta's eugenics policies within a year and a half, and to have both projects well underway within the next three years.

Some of Dyck’s past research has focused on some unusual experiments involving the use of psychedelic drugs to treat addiction. In the 1950s, researchers in Saskatchewan pioneered LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) as a treatment for alcoholism. These psychiatrists — who were the first to coin the term “psychedelic” —believed the LSD would manufacture an artificial sense of “rock bottom” in alcoholic patients, out of which they would find a willingness to receive treatment.

“It didn't quite work the way they had anticipated,” Dyck said. “It did work in the sense that people did have moments of self-reflection, fairly intense moments, usually punctuated by hallucinations that were brought on by the drug,” which helped them move on with treatment.

With recovery rates of fifty to ninety percent, treatment of alcoholism with LSD was largely a success.

“They got a lot of international attention for this radical therapy,” Dyck said, adding that the treatment never caught on, in large part because the drug, which was legal at the time of the experiments, was later criminalized because people were abusing it. The findings of the experiments were later dismissed by the Addictions Research Foundation.

— Sandy Klowak

Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD From Clinic to Campus by Erika Dyck Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008.

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