FRANCIS ELLIOTT, NEW ZEALAND REPORTER, JULY 11, 2006
Servicemen were deliberately subjected to lethal doses of poison in secret tests at chemical weapons research establishment Porton Down, an official report will admit this week.
The Ministry of Defence is braced for a flood of compensation claims from volunteers used in trials at its chemical weapons research centre.
The long-delayed “historical survey” of Porton Down finds that at least five sets of trials “may not have met the ethical standards required”. They include one trial in which drops of a poison were placed on the skin of volunteers at a dosage level believed at the time to be fatal.
Another test saw six men severely injured after their genitals were exposed to mustard gas to test prototype protective underwear.
The trial, in which an RAF serviceman, Ronald Maddison, died in agony after being given sarin, is also condemned in a list of cases in which scientists were acting “at the edge of their knowledge”.
Ministers commissioned the report into Porton Down six years ago, under pressure from volunteers who were convinced that they had suffered long-term health damage.
Professor Sir Ian Kennedy, a world authority on ethics, was asked to review hundreds of tests on servicemen between 1939 and 1989. Although most were properly carried out to the standards of the day, scientists sometimes placed volunteers in “uncontrollable danger”, according to his report.
On one occasion during World War II, urgent tests were needed on an unknown substance found in some captured German shells. The poison was given to both men and rabbits simultaneously. It was only when one of the rabbits died that the test was ended.
Thousands of servicemen were encouraged to volunteer to become guinea pigs in Porton Down, induced by offers of extra pay.
The true nature of what they had signed for was often concealed – many believed, for example, that they were taking part in research on the common cold.
Most were unharmed in routine, harmless tests. But the harrowing detail of what happened when things went wrong was revealed during an inquest two years ago of the death of Leading Aircraftman Maddison.
A jury ruled that he had been unlawfully killed, after hearing that he collapsed, convulsing, after sarin was dripped on to a pad on his arm on May 6, 1953.
Giving evidence, Alfred Thornhill, an ambulance man at Porton Down, told the inquest of the serviceman’s last moments.
“I had never seen anyone die before, and what that lad went through was horrific. The skin was vibrating and there was all this terrible stuff coming out of his mouth.”
The ministry paid £100,000 ($300,000) to the family in compensation and is now braced for a flood of new claims. Alan Care, the family’s solicitor, estimates that about 300 volunteers will join a court action this year.
A ministry official said the report praised the dedication and bravery of Porton Down’s scientists, who often volunteered for the most risky trials themselves. “But it’s inevitable that most attention is going to be on those trials where things went wrong. There is no doubt that some of the survey makes very uncomfortable reading,” he said.
Ken Earle, of the Porton Down Veterans Support Group, said: “All we have ever wanted was an apology and a public inquiry. This report sounds as if it’s going to be damning, but there is more we need to know.”
Earle, who was also subjected to sarin, said he expected to take part in the compensation case against the ministry.
Eric Gow remembers sitting in a hut in Plymouth with his friends and reading a poster inviting volunteers to Porton Down.
“It was something like 15 bob [75p] and a weekend off. We thought it sounded great,” recalls the former Royal Navy radio operator.
His weekend in the countryside was to leave him permanently scarred, however, after tests involving mustard gas and LSD.
It was for the latter trial – carried out by MI6 – that Gow was recently awarded thousands of pounds in an out-of-court settlement.
Gow said subjects were given a “sherry glass of clear liquid”, containing LSD.
Gow, who was 19 at the time, describes how he saw “Catherine wheels explode on the floor” and then the radiator in the room began to heave “like a squeezebox”. He also recalls trying to ride a bike while “laughing and screaming”.
Trial and error
* Bare skin tests of a liquid nerve agents 1951-1953, which led to one death.
* A 1951 study of a nerve agent, the lethal dose of which was not known.
* The trial of the VX nerve agent using a potentially lethal dosage.
* Volunteers’ groins exposed to mustard gas in 1958, without consent.
* Tests on volunteers in 1945 of an unknown substance in German shells