Chemical warfare: Inside Britain's toxic house of horrors
Lethal doses of poison were tested on troops, says report into top secret Porton Down
By Francis Elliott, Whitehall Editor
Published: 09 July 2006
Servicemen were deliberately subjected to lethal doses of poison in secret tests atPorton Down, an official report will admit this week.
The Ministry of Defence is now 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," The Independent on Sunday has learnt. 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 soldiers 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 secret tests carried out on servicemen between 1939 and 1989. Although most were properly carried out according to the standards of the day, scientists sometimes placed volunteers in "uncontrollable danger", according to his conclusion to the report.
On one occasion during the Second World War, urgent tests were needed on an unknown substance found in some captured German shells. The poison, which turned out to be a nerve agent, was given to both men and rabbits simultaneously. It was only when one of the rabbits died that the test was hurriedly brought to an end.
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 up for was often concealed from them - many believed, for example, that they were taking part in research on the common cold.
Although they had the right to withdraw, the volunteers were often not told they could pull out at any time.
Most returned unharmed after undergoing 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 onto a pad on his arm on 6 May 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 MoD recently paid out £100,000 to the family in compensation and is now braced for a flood of new claims. Alan Care, the family's solicitor, who has spent more than a decade researching Porton Down, estimates that around 300 volunteers will join a court action later this year.
An MoD official who has seen the report said that it 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 full public inquiry. This report sounds as if it's going to be damning, but there is much more we need to know."
Mr Earle, who was subjected to the same sarin test as Maddison, said he expects to take part in the compensation case against the MoD. He added: "It was gross negligence."
The guinea pigs: A history of dangerous experiments
The trial of liquid nerve agents on bare skin between 1951 and 1953, which led to one death.
A 1951 study of a nerve agent, the lethal dose of which had not been determined.
The trial of the VX nerve agent using a potentially lethal dosage.
The exposure of volunteers to mustard gas in the scrotal region in 1958 - without real consent.
The testing on volunteers in 1945 of an unknown substance found in captured German shells.
The volunteer: The sailor given LSD in a sherry glass
Eric Gow remembers sitting in a Nissan 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 Wiltshire countryside was to leave him permanently scarred, however, after he was subjected to tests of both mustard gas and LSD.
It was for the latter trial - carried out by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) - that Mr Gow was recently awarded thousands of pounds in an out-of-court settlement.
Mr Gow, a magistrate, said: "We were each given a sherry glass of clear liquid."
The LSD's dramatic effects were almost immediate. Mr 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 in and out "like a squeezebox". He also recalls trying to ride a bicycle through the corridors while "laughing and screaming".