Chelmsford’s Legacy: Regulating Experimental Brain Interventions in the Public Interest (Abstract)

The former Chelmsford Private Hospital (this photograph from 1990). Source: The Daily Telegraph.

I paste below an abstract, with the above title, that I’ve recently submitted to the organisers of a neuroscience and society conference in Sydney. It combines two projects that I’m currently working on: the first, a paper on “the public interest” under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (NSW); and the second, a paper on the Chelmsford scandal from the perspective of the legislative and regulatory history of psychiatry and medicine in NSW in the ’60s through to the ’90s.

Barbiturate-induced deep sleep therapy (DST), electroconvulsive therapy, and cingulotractotomies to lesion the brain’s cingulate gyrus were among the many controversial brain interventions used, often in combination, by psychiatrist Harry Bailey and colleagues in Sydney’s Chelmsford Private Hospital from 1963 until the 1980s. Prompted by the Church of Scientology’s Citizen Commission on Human Rights, and later the NSW-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a Royal Commission into Bailey’s use of DST was established in 1988. Although Bailey committed suicide before giving evidence at the Commission, the resultant report found that the psychiatrist had been responsible for the deaths of more than 24 patients at Chelmsford, together with the suicides of another 19 previously under his care.

In this paper, I will briefly trace Bailey’s unethical misuse of various neuroscientific theories of the mind and brain he had learnt from, among others, Manfred Bleuler, the son of pioneering schizophrenia nosologist Eugen Bleuler, before detailing, in clear terms, the momentous regulatory changes that occurred in NSW after Chelmsford.

When reports of Bailey’s conduct reached authorities in the 1970s, the NSW regulator took no disciplinary action against the psychiatrist, finding that while the Medical Act 1938 proscribed “infamous conduct,” it did not allow interim orders against doctors for poor performance. Subsequent regulatory changes would transform the state’s approach to regulating health practitioners, leading to a new Medical Practice Act in 1992. Drawing on research recently commissioned by the NSW Medical Council on the public interest, this paper will show how regulatory reform after Chelmsford continues to shape health regulation today, including through public interest-based amendments recently made to the 2009 Health Practitioner Regulation National Law across all Commonwealth jurisdictions. Citing hypothetical and real examples, I will also explain what these important reforms mean for practising brain specialists who use or abuse novel experimental brain interventions, such as deep brain stimulation.

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