Sins of the father

A son restores the reputation of his father, a respected physician whose fall from grace may have been exacerbated by secret drug trials.


For nearly half a century, he’d waited, even prayed for this moment and now it had landed in his driveway with a plunk.

It was June 1975 and as he’d done many times before, Dr. Henry Wall took that day’s Atlanta Constitution from his dog Shasta’s mouth and sat down to eat his breakfast.

He’d barely begun reading when a front page story shook him to his core. A Congressional commission had found that for more than two decades, the CIA had been testing the effects of LSD and other drugs on people without their knowledge at universities, prisons and hospitals.

Finally, there it was in black and white — evidence that unsuspecting victims were given drugs without their knowledge. His suspicions were confirmed. There was an explanation for the nightmare he and his mother and sister had lived through, Wall believed. Finally he could set the record straight. His father wasn’t just another drug addict. He was a government lab rat.

2
A happy childhood
The oral surgeon sits in the quiet of his Duluth dental office, having seen the last of his patients, and describes fond memories of his childhood.

Even now, at age 76, his eyes dance remembering those days. Born March 17, 1937, during the Great Depression, Wall recalled navigating the small southwest Georgia town of Blakely with his head held high. His father, Dr. William Henry Wall Sr., was a respected man in the community — a popular physician and a two-term state senator. Two presidents had given him meritorious awards for conducting physicals on military personnel.

For as long as he could remember, Wall — called Lil Doc as a child — idolized his father. He was as much a legend as Tom Mix or the Hardy Boys. Riding shotgun on house calls around Early County, 120 square miles of farmland the size of Rhode Island, was the best part of growing up William Henry Wall Jr., the second of two children born to Hallie and William Sr. It didn’t matter that he had to wait in the car or play kick-the-can with the children of the house.

“It was idyllic,” he said. “If I wasn’t in school, I was with my dad seeing patients.”

Saturdays were the best. Saturdays were reserved for chewing the fat at Charlie Dunning’s barber shop on the north side of the courthouse square. Except for the months without an “R,” he and his father would end the day eating oysters on the half-shell at Allen’s Fish House.

He wasn’t just a great doctor, his father had a way with people, Wall said. He was engaging and kind to a fault.

Once, a man cut from ear to ear on the back of his neck stumbled onto the family porch and knocked on the door. Dr. Wall took him in and sewed him up.

The man couldn’t pay, but it didn’t matter. The Depression had settled in and Dr. Wall was first and foremost a doctor.

By 1941, the world was at war, but the economy was roaring. Jobs had become plentiful. Dr. Wall’s medical practice was growing, and patients were paying for his services again.

The proof lay in the family attic where he set up a table and a line of electric trains for his boy. Tiny streetlights gleamed beside the tracks, crossing gates moved up and down and engines ran back and forth.

“It was every boy’s dream,” Wall said.

The elder Wall had dreams, too. He wanted to build Blakely’s first hospital, complete with a state-of-the-art operating room so he wouldn’t have to send his patients so far away for surgeries. And he hoped Lil Doc and his sister, Anne, would become doctors one day.

In 1944, Dr. Wall ran for state Senate, representing the 9th district, which included Early, Baker and Calhoun counties.

Lil Doc was 7 years old and now, in addition to tagging along with his father on house calls, he hit the campaign trail with his father, admiring the skill with which he worked the crowds.

“He wasn’t a movie star, but he had the same type of attraction,” Wall recalled.

It thrilled Lil Doc to see his daddy’s face peering from posters tacked to telephone poles and store windows around the square.

On election day, as Lil Doc ate a breakfast of cereal and banana that morning, the candidate announced he wanted his son to accompany him to the polls.  Dr. Wall won by a landslide.

“It wasn’t even close,” said Wall.

In retrospect, that was the moment the threads of the Wall family’s lives began to unravel.


3
Suspicious behavior
Dr. Wall was running himself ragged. While maintaining his medical practice and serving in the legislature, he opened Wall Hospital, Blakely’s first 28-bed health facility, in 1948. His obligations were growing, but he was ignoring his health.

Just shy of six feet tall, Dr. Wall weighed 300 pounds and he was losing his teeth. He was just 45. By the time he saw a dentist, he had advanced periodontal disease. Following gum surgery, the doctor sent him home with Demerol to soothe the pain.

Soon thereafter he was diagnosed with Type II diabetes and prescribed insulin.

Wall resumed his pace, working 16 hours days, but something was terribly wrong.

He was nodding off in the middle of conversations. Sometimes it was hard for him to focus. Lil Doc noticed needle marks on his father’s legs and arms but assumed they were from insulin injections.

It was during his father’s second term in office when Lil Doc happened upon empty vials of Demerol in the waste basket at home.

“That’s when I knew,” he said.

When he and his mother confronted his father, he explained it away by saying he had a foot infection caused by the diabetes.

“It gave him an out,” Wall said.

But for the first time in his life, Wall was beginning to see his father’s faults. He was no longer perfect. And Lil Doc was having to shoulder adult responsibilities.

“It was like I’d been thrown into my 30s,” said Wall, who was 15 at the time. “I wasn’t going to have any normal teenage years.”

When he wasn’t at school, Lil Doc made sure he was at the hospital keeping an eye on things.

One day the patient load was backing up at the hospital, so Lil Doc went looking for his father.

He knocked on the bathroom door but didn’t get an answer. When he realized the door was locked, he got a pass key to open it.

Dr. Wall was on the toilet, fully clothed, passed out against the wall.

At home that night, Lil Doc and his mother begged Dr. Wall to get help at Brawner Psychiatric Institute in Smyrna.

I don’t need help, Dr. Wall told them.


4
Fall from grace
One spring day in 1953, Dr. Wall’s drug abuse caught up with him. He was arrested and charged with 18 counts of drug violations, including three felonies.

Lil Doc had just turned 16, but he felt like 61.

What are we going to do now, he asked his mother.

She tried to reassure him. She was already giving private piano lessons to help make ends meet. Maybe she could find a full-time teaching job.

Bailed out of jail by a colleague in the Senate, Dr. Wall returned home that night and summoned his family to the bedroom.

We need to pray, he told them.

For most of Wall’s life, when the family attended services at the Methodist church, Dr. Wall didn’t join them, choosing instead to make house calls. Now he was kneeling with his family in prayer.

There on his knees, he admitted he was an addict, and he asked for help.

In the days that followed his father’s arrest, Lil Doc struggled to walk through the haze. His father could still practice medicine, but his narcotic license had been revoked, the single blessing in the entire episode, Wall thought. If he couldn’t prescribe the drug, he couldn’t take it.

As the days and weeks passed, Lil Doc knew his father was going through withdrawal. He had the shakes. He couldn’t sleep. He was always on edge.

By the time the trial began in late September, Lil Doc was in the 11th grade at Blakely Union High School (now Early County High School). No longer able to afford tuition, his sister Anne had withdrawn from the University of Alabama at the end of the spring quarter and moved to Bainbridge with her new husband.

Lil Doc and Anne were seated on the front row with their mother when the verdict was read.

William Henry Wall Sr. was pronounced guilty of three counts of taking drugs without a prescription and sentenced to 18 months in the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Ky. Part federal prison, part drug treatment center and part research facility, the hospital was popularly referred to as the Narcotic Farm or Narco.

“I hated it, but I just thought, well, thank God, it’s over. He’ll finally get the help he needs,” Wall said. “I didn’t know he was going into a snake pit.”


5
Belly of the beast
After nearly two days of driving, Lil Doc and his family finally arrived for a one-hour visit at the Narcotic Farm, which sprawled across more than 1,000 acres of pastoral land speckled with cattle.

It had been three months since he’d last seen his father, and he’d been thrust into the role of man of the house.

It was a nearly unbearable load to carry. An uneasy sadness hung around his lean shoulders like a wet winter coat.

He struggled to make sense of his reality. Everything his father had worked for, including Blakely’s first hospital, had been sold on the steps of the Early County courthouse. His mother, once a housewife, was working full-time. Anne, wanting desperately to escape the situation, had married against her family’s wishes.

Once inside the prison, a guard instructed the family on prison decorum. Touching and talking about legal issues were forbidden. Then they were led to a table in the reception area.

Dr. Wall appeared looking much thinner than they remembered. What was left of Lil Doc’s heart broke into a thousand tiny pieces. Five hundred miles and he couldn’t even hug his father’s neck.

Dr. Wall apologized for not being there to take care of his family. And he told them drug experiments were being conducted at the prison. He’d been asked to volunteer, but he assured his family he had declined the request.

The only thing I’m going to take is insulin, he told them.

Lil Doc believed him. His father was in a hospital where he could get the help he needed and the family’s reputation would be restored. Or so he thought.

Just about everyone convicted of drug violations in the U.S. from 1935 to 1975 were sent to one of two Narcotic Farms — one in Fort Worth and one in Lexington, Ky. The Kentucky facility also housed the Addiction Research Center (ARC). Up to 1,500 drug addicts were housed there. One-third of those were voluntarily seeking treatment and the rest, like Dr. Wall, were sentenced there by judges. At any given time, 10 percent to 15 percent of the residents were health care professionals, doctors and nurses, who were addicted to morphine.

Nancy Campbell, co-author of “The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts,” said the Kentucky facility was designed not only to incarcerate and rehabilitate addicts but to find a cure for drug addiction and a substitute for morphine.

It conducted what today would be considered small-scale clinical trials designed to assess the safety and efficacy of analgesics, including morphine, methadone, meperidine or Demerol. It also conducted LSD experiments.

The latter was studied in a series of CIA-funded experiments, code-named MK-ULTRA, Campbell said. They came to light in the 1970s during congressional hearings following disclosures of the Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in black men who thought they were receiving free health care from the federal government.

“The Narcotic Farm was spectacularly vilified during the hearings,” she said. “As the only laboratory in a federal penitentiary, the ARC came under so much pressure to stop using prisoners that it did.”

Although still in operation as a prison, the Lexington facility ended its drug experiments in 1974.


6
A changed man
Dr. Wall was in prison for eight months, and the time crawled for Lil Doc. When his father was released in May 1954, Lil Doc couldn’t have been happier. His heart danced as Dr. Wall exited the plane that day in Albany. Anne broke ranks and took off running to meet him. She threw her arms around him, shocked at how much thinner he had gotten.

He told his family he suspected he was being administered drugs against his will, so he’d virtually stopped eating. In just a few months, he’d dropped 80 of the nearly 300 pounds he wore into prison.

At home that first night, they enjoyed some of Dr. Wall’s favorite foods — fried chicken, squash casserole and cherry pie. They talked freely for the first time in more than a year. They laughed. But it wouldn’t last.

Dr. Wall managed to get his medical license reinstated, but he was changed. Without notice, Dr. Wall would get a scary look in his eyes, and he would turn angry and violent, Wall said. He no longer enjoyed being around people or talking to them. He sometimes beat his wife. Once, while Lil Doc was away at the University of Georgia, Dr. Wall took a bat to the bed he’d bought his son and broke it into pieces during one of his rages.

One night, Wall said his father was rattling on about how depressed he was over losing his practice and the hospital. Lil Doc could see in his father’s eyes that another storm was brewing. He noticed a gun handle sticking out of his father’s pocket.

“I realized he was going to kill himself,” Wall said.

Lil Doc sneaked behind him and, after a brief tussle, overpowered his father and took the weapon away.

Another night, Dr. Wall telephoned his wife from the office and threatened to kill her.

You have to come home, she screamed to Lil Doc over the phone.

Lil Doc drove through the night, arriving from the University of Georgia.

When Dr. Wall finally came home the next morning, he behaved as though nothing had happened.

“It was a huge mystery,” Lil Doc said of his father’s violent episodes. “Our life was calm one minute and hell the next, and there was nothing I could do. When you confronted him, he didn’t remember.”

Lil Doc knew something was terribly wrong. He began to suspect his father had been unknowingly given drugs at the Narcotic Farm.

“I just kept thinking, we have to get him back to normal somehow,” he said.


7
Telling his story
The Wall family, however, would never be “normal” again.

In 1959, Wall graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After losing his bid for medical school, he enrolled in dental school at Emory University, determined to fulfill his dream and secure his future.

If the past had taught him anything, it was how quickly life could change.

“When you lose everything and start at zero, there’s the determination to never go there again,” Wall said. “I knew if I worked hard, concentrated and focused, I’d make it. I had to go to banks and borrow a lot of money, but I did it.”

Four years later, Wall received his doctor of dental surgery degree, and the family celebrated at Benihana in Buckhead. It felt like old times. They were the happiest they’d been in a long time.

Wall signed up for the Air Force and he and his new bride headed to Eglin Air Force base at Fort Walton Beach, where their first son, William Henry Wall III, was born.

By then, Wall had already begun making a name for himself as an oral surgeon. In 1965, he invented a fracture splint to repair broken jaws, and the following year, the first emergency airway and suction tube. During his last year of surgery training at Duval Medical Center (now Shands Jacksonville Division of the University of Florida), he and his wife welcomed their second son, Steven, but Dr. Wall wouldn’t be around to celebrate.

Two days later, in July 1967, Dr. Wall suffered a massive stroke and died.

His father now gone, Wall got on with his life, praying and hoping for the time when he could tell the world about the man he knew and loved. He wanted to tell the world about the man who, in Wall’s estimation, was a public health hero who worked diligently to relieve overcrowding at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville and is credited with beginning efforts to create regional mental health centers across the state.

One day, Wall vowed, he’d free his father and his family of the shame that haunted them over the years. Nearly four decades would pass before that moment would come.

In March 2003, 10 days after Wall’s 67th birthday, his mother, Hallie Wall, died, taking the public humiliation and the private pain she’d felt all those years with her. She had refused to speak about Dr. Wall’s addiction or the terror he wrought after he was released from prison. Even when news broke about the congressional investigation in the ’70s, she forbid Wall from writing about it.

Oh no, please don’t do that, she told him. It’s too painful. I can’t go through that again.

But now nothing was stopping him.

He immediately hired a ghost writer and began penning his memoir.

By the time they finished in 2005, Wall had obtained a patent for a coronary stent and the method cardiologists routinely use for inserting them after angioplasty, a process that has saved more than 50 millions lives worldwide.

Six years later he self-published his memoir, “From Healing to Hell,” about his father’s tormented life.

“It was a huge relief to tell the story,” Wall said. “I carried that burden for many years not being able to do anything, so the fact that I was able to finally write the book and the positive feedback I’ve gotten from readers gave me such a feeling of reward.”

Based on her research, author Nancy Campbell doesn’t believe Dr. Wall was given drugs without his knowledge at the Narcotic Farm. She said researchers only experimented on healthy prisoners and Dr. Wall had diabetes. Informed consent was the norm at the ARC, dating back to the 1930s, long before it was mandated by law, she said.

But Wall disagrees. He isn’t sure what drug his father was given, but he believes it was most likely LSD. He tried for two years to get his father’s prison records but was told they didn’t exist. What he does know, he said, is that whatever happened to his father in that federal prison changed the trajectory of his life and that of his father’s.

“That fact couldn’t be ignored,” Wall said.

That’s why he wanted to tell his story. He felt an obligation to clear his father’s name and inform readers about the dangers of what can happen when a government agency goes out of control.

“I don’t claim to be a preacher, but I knew who my father was because I spent so much time with him,” Wall said. “We were being visited by the devil and there was no doubt in my mind he was a victim. My whole family was.”

 

HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Gracie Bonds Staples often writes about medical issues for the AJC. When she received a copy of Dr. William Henry Wall Jr.’s memoir, she was struck by his compelling story. It recalled a dark history in our country when government agencies conducted appalling experiments on unknowing citizens. No one will ever know for sure if Dr. Wall’s father was a victim of the practice, but he makes a compelling argument. There is no question that Dr. W.H. Wall Sr. made some bad choices that had devastating effects on his family. But something happened in prison that made a bad situation worse.

Suzanne Van Atten
personaljourneys@ajc.com.

 

About the reporter

Gracie Bonds Staples has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples, 55, lives in Johns Creek with her husband of 27 years, Jimmy. They have two daughters, Jamila and Asha, both recent college graduates.

Next week: Retracing the forgotten steps of a decorated World War II veteran.


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