Induction of deep sleep for psychiatric purposes was first tried by Scottish psychiatrist Neil Macleod at the turn of the 20th century. He used bromide sleep in a few psychiatric patients, one of whom died. His method was adopted by some other physicians but soon abandoned, perhaps because it was considered too toxic or reckless. In 1915, Giuseppe Epifanio tried barbiturate-induced coma therapy in a psychiatric clinic in Italy, but his reports made little impact.
Deep Sleep Therapy was popularized in the 1920s by Swiss psychiatrist Jakob Klaesi, using a combination of two new barbiturates from pharmaceutical company Roche. Klaesi's method became widely known and occasionally used procedure for psychotic illness in the 1930s and 1940s.
DST was adopted and promoted by some leading psychiatrists in the 1950s and 60s, such as William Sargant in the UK and by Ewan Cameron, a distinguished North American psychiatrist of Scottish origin practicing in Canada. They were advocates of biopsychiatry methods of treatment such as Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), insulin coma therapy, lobotomy and psychiatric drugs. Sargent wrote in his standard textbook An Introduction to Physical Methods of Treatment in Psychiatry: 'Many patients unable to tolerate a long course of ECT, can do so when anxiety is relieved by narcosis ... What is so valuable is that they generally have no memory about the actual length of the treatment or the numbers of ECT used ... After 3 or 4 treatments they may ask for ECT to be discontinued because of an increasing dread of further treatments. Combining sleep with ECT avoids this ...'. In addition he states: 'All sorts of treatment can be given while the patient is kept sleeping, including a variety of drugs and ECT [which] together generally induce considerable memory loss for the period under narcosis. As a rule the patient does not know how long he has been asleep, or what treatment, even including ECT, he has been given. Under sleep ... one can now give many kinds of physical treatment, necessary, but often not easily tolerated. We may be seeing here a new exciting beginning in psychiatry and the possibility of a treatment era such as followed the introduction of anaesthesia in surgery'.
Deep Sleep Therapy was also notoriously practised (in combination with electroconvulsive therapy and other therapies) by Dr Harry Bailey between 1962 and 1979 in Sydney, Australia at the Chelmsford Private Hospital.
Deep Sleep Therapy as practised by Bailey involved long periods of barbiturate-induced coma, during which it was anticipated that the patients' minds would be able to overcome mental afflictions. DST was prescribed for various conditions ranging from schizophrenia and depression to obesity, PMS and addiction.
Twenty-six patients died at Chelmsford Private Hospital during that period with only perfunctory investigation by authorities. A series of articles in the early 1980s in the Sydney Morning Herald exposed the horrors that occurred at Chelmsford, forcing the hospital to close. Legal action on behalf of former patients was and is still being pursued in New South Wales.
The most famous patient was Stevie Wright the former lead singer of the 60's pop band The Easybeats; another was musician Bobby Limb. Limb was one of ex-patients of Chelmsford who took part in the 1992 documentary about the Deep Sleep scandal, Deep Sleep made for Channel Four in the UK's Secret History (television documentary series) by filmmaker John Edginton. The film was also shown on ABC, the Australian broadcasting network and A&E in America.
In 1989 the former Chelmsford Private Hospital was refurbished and reopened under new management and is up to present day operating as a nursing home.