Souris Valley Mental Health Hospital

Opened as the Weyburn Mental Hospital in 1921, Souris Valley was once the largest building in The British Commonwealth and considered to be on the forefront of experimental treatments. Located in Weyburn, Saskatchewan in Canada, the hospital treat the mentally ill with a series of experimental treatments including insulin therapy, lobotomies, and LSD. It was officially shut down in 1971, although portions of the site have been used as a treatment centre until 2005.


In 1879, a monumental migration took place of settlers in western Canada which prompted the federal government to pass legislation in regard to the “safe keeping of dangerous lunatics in the north western territories.” By 1905, Saskatchewan had become a part of the Dominion of Canada and began building asylums to treat such people, first in North Battleford, then in Weyburn.

Weyburn Mental Hospital

The Weyburn Mental Hospital was opened in December 1921 with a capacity of 900 patients. A total of 60 nurses were employed upon opening, plus an additional 60 attendants. The hospital received a surge of patients, forcing new buildings  to be built just years after opening. The new buildings pushed the capacity to 3000 patients and staff, but even this was inadequate, and the majority of patients lived in cramped conditions. Many of the treatments used in the hospital in the early 1900s involved insulin therapy, hydrotherapy, lobotomies and electroshock therapy.

The hospital’s name was changed several times in later years:

1947 to Saskatchewan Hospital

1971 to Souris Valley Extended Care Hospital

1981 to Souris Valley Regional Care Centre (when it was placed under the authority of Saskatchewan Social Services);

1990s, to Souris Valley Extended Care Centre.

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)

In 1951, Dr Humphry Osmond and John Smythies joined the staffing team at Weyburn and transformed the entire operation of the hospital. Osmond hired a group of researchers to assist him in changing the hospital into a functioning research laboratory, and he performed a vast array of patient studies, experiments and observations in the name of understanding mental illness.

Alongside Abram Hoffer, Osmond and his wife consumed LSD in an attempt to better understand its effects, and encouragedMescaline Molecule the rest of the staff to follow suit. The following year, Osmond noted the similarities between the mescaline molecule and the adrenaline molecule, theorising that schizophrenia was a form of self-intoxication.

In 1953, Osmond administered a dose of mescaline to English author, Aldous Huxley, who went on to write up his experience in his book The Doors of Perception. Osmond collaborated with Huxley to create a word which would adequately describe the LSD experience, and Huxley came up with ‘phanerothyme.’ In a letter to Osmond, he wrote:

“To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme.” To which Osmond replied: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.”

Eventually, they agreed on the word ‘psychedelic’ as it was “clear, euphonious and uncontaminated by other associations.” By 1959, the Weyburn mental hospital doctors had published a total of thirteen papers in scientific journals, and the hospital had a growing reputation of being on the forefront of mental illness treatments.

Research Staff
1952 – 55 / Ben Stefaniuk, Dr. Roland Lynch
1957 – 58 / Dr. T. Weckowicz, Dr. R. Sommer, Miss G. Whitney, Bob Hall, Miss Koshman, Mrs. Fenton
1960 / Dr. Ayllon, Bob Hall
1965 – 72 / Gerald McEachern
1967 / Dr. Herjanic, Bob Hall, Colin Hales, Mary McCarron, Secretary
1970 – 72 / Dr. A. Masters

Volunteering Staff for LSD Trials:
Murray Cathcart, Chuck Jillings, Bill Ving, Hugh McDonald, Bruce Robertson, David Slator, Claire Blake, Bill Munn, Joe Harvey, Elaine Sinclair, Leyta Minogue, Pat Saunders, Jean Baker, and Marion Brownlee.

In 1954, this paper was written by Dr. Humphry Osmond and was part of the Hospital Archives. (Provided by Virtualmuseum.CA)

  • Schizophrenia

That sinister and enigmatic word has invaded art, literature, history, the law and recently even political orations. It appears in films and broadcasts yet how many people could define it : not one in ten thousand. It is called popularly “split mind” and this is thought to mean that double personality such as Jekyll and Hyde, which it certainly is not.

It has been called the scourge of our troubled age, though there is little evidence that we are more prone to it than previous generations. Some say that it is the result of the unwholesome stresses of our civilization, but from what we can discover schizophrenia is not bounded by climate, color, race or culture. It seems to be an ailment universal to mankind.

What then is schizophrenia? It is a group of mental illnesses which includes those that Kraepelin, the great German 19th Century psychiatrist, called dementia praecox, and others which were not in his classification. Eugene Bleuler, a Swiss, introduced the term in 1910, and in our opinion, since the Greek allows it, rather than “split” mind it should be called the shattered mind. These illnesses fill about one-fifth of all the hospital beds in Europe and North America and must account for over a half million people. It is the most costly and crippling adversary facing medicine today.

About one person in a hundred develops schizophrenia, and at least one-third of the sufferers are permanently damaged by it. Young men and women in the prime are stricken by it most frequently, and those who do not recover spend many years in mental hospital. Those who live and work with this monstrous illness are always being surprised by its vagaries. Within a few weeks a cheerful and active young man becomes so degraded that if allowed to he will eat his own excrement.

While a “hopeless” lunatic, long forgotten in the back wards of a mental hospital may, without any special treatment, in the space of another few weeks become well. No one knows why. It doesn’t happen often like that, but that it happens at all is astonishing. However these dramatic illnesses are less frequent than those in which the sick person becomes increasingly odd, seclusive, shut-in and apathetic.

You will ask the cause of such a grave illness and here doctors differ. Everything from lack of mother love to a poor physical inheritance, from unkindness engendered by a competitive society, to a yeast-like organism, has its supporters. Where there are many opinions and no proof, men hold to their fancies with sturdy obstinacy. We fancy a toxic substance which has not yet been identified and in this we follow Eugene Bleuler and his even greater pupil C.G.Jung.

While doctors disagree as to the cause of an illness which is so costly in money and suffering, that one is never sure which astronomical figure to choose, most people would like to know something about the illness and what can be done about it. It is an illness in which there are changes in thinking, perceiving, mood and often bodily posture which may last a few days or a whole lifetime. This altered experience naturally results in altered behaviour. It occurs in all races and classes and has been seen in most age groups, but predominates in among those from 15 – 40. There is evidence that inheritance plays a part in the development. No one has shown that the brain or central nervous system is damaged in any way. In typical cases the patient is aware of his surroundings and his memory for recent and long past events is good.

You may feel that you have asked for bread and have had an academic brick thrown at you. You would like to know what it feels like to feel to be insane. It is not possible to describe this in a brief article, but books like Thomas Hennell’s masterpiece The Witnesses (Peter Davies), C.K. Ogden’s Kingdom of the Lost (Bodley Head), the wonderful novels of Charles Williams (Faber)and the appalling works of Franz Kafka (Secker) allow us to glimpse a world which is mercifully hidden from most of us. For those who wish to know more there is (under proper medical guidance), the path of personal discovery through the alkaloid mescalin and similar substances. This reveals aspects of reality for which Yeats “terrible beauty” is the only adequate description. Experience of this sort are only just communicable by literary artists such as Mr. Aldous Huxley in this recent book; most of us are left shaken and inarticulate.

If you are a practical man you are probably saying “what’s the use of it?” Mescalin and compounds like it produce what we call a “model psychosis”, a miniature disaster of the mind, which, unlike those overwhelming mental illnesses that keep people in hospital for years on end, lasts only a few hours. Like any other model our model illnesses can teach us about the real thing, if we use them properly.

No explorer can ever be absolutely safe. Those who take these strange substances are like test pilots, but the plane is their own mind and body. One day we may look upon those volunteers who undertake these expeditions into another reality with the same respect that we treat pioneers of the air. If we learn how to alter or even prevent our model illnesses from occurring we may be able to attack the real ones with greater precision. At present our treatments, although sometimes effective are crude and we do not know why they work.

One day we shall treat these great illnesses as surely as physicians of the body treat diabetes or pernicious anaemia. Just how soon the day comes depends not a little upon every reader of this article, because it is your support not only in money but in encouragement which keeps researchers going in spite of difficulty and disappointment inseparably from such a task.

But illness is only the start. You want to know, just as much as we do, the meaning of these beautiful, awe-inspiring and frightening things. How do they come about? Can science help us to unravel this tangled and mysterious skein which is part of the essential nature of man? We believe that it can, and that in the unravelling we shall discover not only our limitations, but our extraordinary potentialities, and so check the disillusionment and despair of an age which seems so chaotic. It is by understanding our own nature and through our own nature that of the universe, that we shall foster the reverence for life of which Albert Schweitzer speaks. This reverence for life increases our love and respect for our fellow men and woman without bar of creed or color, because it springs from a vision far outstripping the imagination in its glory. Science at present is the only universal language and it is fitting that it should proclaim clearly and urgently a message of life and hope. 


Below is an excerpt from a paper written by H.G. Lafave, A.R. Stewart, F. Grunberg and A.A. MacKinnon in 1967, provided by Virtualmuseum.CA:

  • The Weyburn Experience : Reducing Intake as a Factor in Phasing Out a Large Mental Hospital

The inpatient population of the Saskatchewan Hospital, Weyburn, dropped from 1519 in January 1963 to 421 in June 1966. The hospital serves the one-half million population of the southern half of Saskatchewan. The reduction of over 1000 beds was realized despite the fact that the number of alternative psychiatric beds in service in the region rose only from 60 to 100.
This report discusses how a change of such magnitude took place. In particular our main purpose is to concentrate on factors influencing intake into the hospital system. It is our thesis that when hospital admissions are reduced as a result of providing suitable substitutes to hospitalization, considerable reductions in inpatient populations can be achieved. We contend that undue attention has been placed upon discharge and transfer as primary methods by which hospital populations can be reduced.

Historical Note
The Saskatchewan Hospital, Weyburn, is one of two mental hospitals, each of which was originally intended to serve approximately half of the one million population of the province. Both of these institutions could serve historically as stereotypes of “large, isolated, segregated, undifferentiated, mental asylums”

Until recently, the Weyburn Hospital provided the main psychiatric service for a catchment area of about 500,000. Built in 1921 and designed for a capacity of 950 beds, the common pattern of overcrowding followed through the years. In 1946 the hospital housed a peak population of 2600 patients. The establishment of provincial facilities for the mentally retarded resulted in a decrease in population to approximately 1800. The expansion of services in areas within the Weyburn perimeter saw the population stabilize from the year 1957 to 1962 at an average of slightly over 1550, with negligible fluctuations. At the end of 1957 the hospital census was 1554, and on December 31, 1962, the population stood at 1548.

In late 1962, a re-examination of the function and purpose of the hospital led to a complete reorganization directed towards a community-oriented philosophy of patient care and increased extramural psychiatric services. The outstanding feature of this plan as executed was a dramatic drop in the patient population at Weyburn without a proportional increase in hospital beds in other facilities.(It is important to note that there are no private psychiatric facilities in Saskatchewan : all existing units come under the provincial public health service.)

How was this reduction realized? Obviously a complex pattern of interacting factors was involved, including increased outpatient follow-up, emphasis on community psychiatry, an active rehabilitation program, and the utilization or development of community facilities for geriatric care. The separate impact of these programs will be reported elsewhere. This paper focuses on admissions. The immediate conclusion of critics of the Weyburn phenomenon is that discharging patients indiscriminately was the method whereby our patient population was reduced by 73 per cent in a 3 year period. There is no question that an active treatment program combined with energetic efforts at rehabilitation resulted in the return to active community life of a large number of patients. More important, however, was the establishment of a broad based, community-centered service. In brief, the Weyburn phenomenon is largely a result of drying up the source, not opening up the floodgates.

Factors in Reducing Intake
It is impossible to extricate the events at Weyburn from the overall psychiatric program in the province. Each established or additional service has its effect on all the others. This is particularly true in this province where the Saskatchewan Plan, advocates the construction of small regional facilities close to the population served and to available medical services. The Weyburn program is part of this overall plan and adheres to its principles.

Three factors had the most pronounced effect on the decrease in admissions at Saskatchewan Hospital, Weyburn : 1/ cooperation with, and coordination of, existing psychiatric services in the communities served; 2/ the establishment of the Yorkton Psychiatric Centre; and 3/ the development of the Weyburn Psychiatric Centre from within the existing hospital complex to provide total service to its own catchment areas.

Our conclusion to date is that the Saskatchewan Plan represents a breakthrough which can seal the fate of the large, isolated custodial unit. From a professional point of view, the Saskatchewan Hospital at Weyburn could be closed down completely. However, because of the location of the hospital in an isolated, small community, the resulting impact on local economic conditions could dictate a political decision to maintain the large mental hospital. Many serious problems, such as resettlement of staff, confront the public administrator. The decision to close down the Weyburn Hospital is now an economic and political one. It is not an easy decision. The authors maintain, however, that there is no justification on psychiatric grounds for its continued existence.


There were many attempts by locals to save the historic hospital complex, but in 2008 the city officially declared the building would be demolished. A tender for the demolition was awarded to Demco Decommissioning & Environmental Management Company of West Seneca, New York. By the end of 2009 there was nothing of the asylum left but an empty field.

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