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A Shout From The Attic: The June Years - 5

...life can be more fun than anyone ever imagined when one is not restricted by good sense, propriety, and sanity...

Ronnie Bray continues his astonishing autobiography.

The Great Anafranil Experiment

It is funny how things are swept under the carpets of memory to be lost and forgotten until someone lifts a corner and lets
the light in. This is what happened to The Great Anafranil Experiment that took place in the School of Nursing at St
Audrey’s Hospital in Suffolk until I received an e-mail message from Keith Vugler, whom I had not seen for twenty-five years.

Taken as a whole, our student nurse intake was a pretty good bunch. Not only did we learn together, but we laughed and,
sometimes, played together. My favourite fellow-students were Keith Vugler and Mike Reed. There was a flavour of anarchism evident in the three of us that made life more than bearable. Perhaps our main purpose there was to supply amusement for the rest of the class.

There is an insanity of the sane that prevents the other kind of insanity, and we possessed it. One of its more interesting
expressions was The Great Anafranil Experiment. This took place one sunny afternoon in our class in the Nurse Training
School. Our kindly old tutor, Mr Brown of Portsmouth, had lent us to the care of his junior, a tall young man of serious
nature who thought that student nurses ought not to be exposed to too much scholarship. One of his favourite saying was “I don’t want to go into it that deeply.” The fiction was devised that he was asked if it was true that humans had two kidneys, and that this was his response. It was, as stated, a fiction, but it told somewhat how we viewed his curb on the enthusiasm of our learning.

He once stated that he did not like giving ten out of ten to anyone because it meant that they had given a perfect answer
and, in his opinion, that was not possible. He had to “steel” himself, he said, on several occasions to full marks to some
of our number who thought perfection not only possible but necessary.

When in school, we applied ourselves to our studies and when we were out of school, we worked on the wards interacting with patients and doing all kinds of things that today are done only by staff nurses, charge nurses, phlebotomists, and other
curious specialist who have displaced nurses from all the interesting procedures, leaving them, as Mr Brown prophesied, “to take care of the orifices.”

We had a good social life, organised a student section of the Royal College of Nursing, published a student newsletter,
laughed and played in the common room, and partied more than we ought to have done, but they were high and holy days writ large in purple when, with a serious purpose, we set out to change the tenor of psychiatric nursing in the entire world.

On the wards, we cared for our patients in all kinds of ways, even dispensing and giving medicines unsupervised. This was a time of great advances in psychotropic drugs. One notable drug that was introduced at this time was the anti-depressant
Anafranil. I will explain that on those far-off days, access to drugs on mental hospital wards was free and easy. Huge bottles of pills were carried from which the contents were dispensed according to the drug sheet of each patient. Ward drug cupboards contained an unbelievable assortment of all kinds of medicines dating back, in some cases, to the year dot. One ward for acutely psychotic male patients had bulk supplies of a drug used to induce uterine contractions, although during all the time I spent on that ward not one of the men ever presented any symptom of pregnancy!

Then came the day Anafranil was added to the drug trolley. We discussed the relative merits of the various antidepressants in use and wondered what was so great about Anafranil that it merited being added to the arsenal.

Who it was that decided to conduct the experiment, and who appropriated sufficient of the orange and brown capsules for each member of the class, I cannot remember. In any case, not being sure of the statute of limitations in these matters, I would not tell if I could. Let it be enough to say that at the beginning of the afternoon class, each of us received a capsule of the new wonder drug and swallowed it.

Our motives were the highest, moved, as we were by a mixture of the aforementioned insanity and liberal doses of altruism, which combination forms the motive power behind all great ventures. Our judgement of the efficacy of Anafranil to combat endogenous and exogenous depressions remains a sealed book. We published (behind our hands to our fellows in other classes, and then only to those we knew we could trust) only the obvious: Anafranil caused lethargy and drowsiness.

One we felt as we fought the compelling need to sleep as inhibition spread over our cerebral cortexes, and the other was

perceived by our tutor who, whilst looking through the window at the blossom on the crab apple trees, enquired of us what we had had for dinner, imagining that some exotic dish from the Nurses’ Home kitchen had somnolised us. Little did he know!

Had it occurred to us that all new drugs are tested before being loosed on an unsuspecting public, even those who need very special and tender care, we might not have felt it necessary to conduct the trial. What I find alarming, even at this distance, is that fifteen people of above average intelligence calmly and deliberately popped an unfamiliar drug with unknown side effects into their systems on a sunny afternoon to find out what effect it would have.

There was no government money involved in this experimentation – apart from fifteen missing capsules – and no one seemed to suffer permanent damage. Two or three even managed to drive themselves home after school. And what lesson does this teach me? Only that life can be more fun than anyone ever imagined when one is not restricted by good sense, propriety, and sanity.


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