A new book by author Ulf Schmidt reveals that the UK government conducted simulated biological attacks on unsuspecting members of the public, involving poisons such as anthrax and hydrogen cyanide.
The shocking claims are revealed in the book Secret Science, which outline horrific stories such as the 26 July 1963 simulated biological attacks (the largest such attacks ever conducted) in which hundreds of men, women and children were exposed to spores of Bacillus globigii at a London underground station in Colliers Wood.
As Secret Science explains, B. globigii is considered a human pathogen with the potential to trigger food poisoning, eye infections and septicaemia. In 1963 it was believed harmless. Several days after the “attack”, trainee engineers, clueless about the true nature of what they were doing, gathered dust samples from tube stations across central London. The spores had travelled more than 16 kilometres through the ventilation system, and were recovered as far north as Camden.
For around 25 years, rumours have circulated about top-secret military labs, where unsuspecting men and women were exposed to some of the world’s deadliest agents. I grew up near one of them, Porton Down in Wiltshire, UK, and remember playground rumours about soldiers being duped or coerced into taking part in trials of toxic gases, nerve agents and drugs like LSD.
If you’ve ever wondered what really went on behind the barbed wire fences and guarded doors in labs like these,Secret Science provides as thoroughly researched and comprehensive an account as you are likely to get – at least until the next public release of classified documents.
The author of Secret Science is Ulf Schmidt, professor of modern history and director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent, UK. He was also the principal investigator of the Porton Down Project, a 10-year study of the history and ethics of Britain’s cold war biological and chemical weapons programme. So if anyone is in a position to know about such covert operations, it is Schmidt.
From the first use of chlorine gas by Germany in the first world war to the development and testing of nerve agents, biological weapons, “debilitating” agents like CS gas, and so-called truth drugs such as LSD, Schmidt charts the ethical trajectory and culture of military science through the 20th century. He also probes why, after decades of ambivalence, governments started to worry and stricter regulation was finally put in place.
The book opens with the death of Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison, poisoned with nerve agent sarin at Porton Down in 1953. It is a story Schmidt returns to several times, and one he is well-placed to comment on – he was one of the principal expert witnesses in the 2004 inquest into Maddison’s death.
Schmidt is at his most compelling as he describes Maddison’s life and what he endured at Porton Down. He creates a character with whom the reader can empathise – a popular, working-class 20-year-old lad in search of adventure, a weekend pass to see his girlfriend and, of course, some cash for his trouble – which serves to hammer home the human cost of such military research programmes.
Elsewhere in the book, the details of the experiments and the stories of the human subjects – or “observers” as they were often referred to – are less moving. They tend to be reduced to statistics, much as they might have seemed to the scientists who used these people as their guinea pigs.
But as Schmidt reveals, not all of them were helpless, passive victims. While many of those who “consented” to trials of toxic agents claim to have had little awareness of what they were really getting into, some formed groups and rebelled, refusing to take part in any more tests. In other situations, perverse cultures developed, based around male bravado and peer pressure.
For example, at the Australian Chemical Warfare Experimental and Research Station in Innisfail, Queensland, subjects were allowed to run a sweepstake during a series of gas chamber tests. The person with the worst injuries won all the money. “Egged on by female staff making faces through the gas chamber window or singing Australian folk songs, some men were encouraged to volunteer repeatedly to earn extra cash,” Schmidt writes. Many were left with severe disfigurements.
“Subjects ran a sweepstake during gas chamber tests. The person with the worst injuries won all the money”
A large number of those who worked at Porton Down and other military labs believed there was nothing wrong with what they were doing. There is an odd resonance with modern episodes of iniquity, such as the behaviour of bankers in the run-up to the global financial crisis, or phone hacking by UK journalists.
For the most part, Schmidt offers a non-judgemental analysis, although there are times when you can feel him struggling to contain his emotions. In his conclusions, for instance, Schmidt compares modern, transparent public hearings such as the President’s Advisory Committee for Human Radiation Experiments in the US with the “exceedingly narrow” reviews that have investigated the claims of Porton Down veterans in the UK. “Perhaps one day Britain will be a country in which the services of the living will be remembered in equal measure with those of the departed,” he observes.
The military participants were not the only test subjects, though. I was surprised to learn about the self-experimentation among military scientists, impatient for official sanction – or short of volunteers. For instance, Joseph Barcroft, chief physiologist at Porton Down’s gas warfare centre, willingly locked himself and a dog inside a gas chamber of hydrogen cyanide. This was an attempt to refute the idea that animals were reliable substitutes for human tests of toxic agents. The dog passed out after 90 seconds (it later recovered), while Barcroft left the chamber apparently unscathed.
So why would scientists knowingly subject themselves to the kind of risks they subjected others to? The answer seems to lie in a sense of contributing to the greater good, in much the same way as those soldiers who laid down their lives on the world’s battlefields.
Although this book may prove a little too dense for casual lay-readers, anyone with the interest – and stomach – for it will find a compelling history of the horrors people willingly inflict on their fellow humans and themselves, in the name of the public good.