This isn’t an easy book to read. It’s a challenging read. The author, Ulf Schmidt, is an academic, 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 writes like an academic with a dry neutrality and a denseness of information. But it is also a difficult read because of its subject, namely the Porton Down scientists’ experimentation on unwitting subjects.
Much of the book focuses on the military personnel who were tricked or misled into exposure with chemical and nerve agents. They appear to have been given little information on the true nature of the substances they were to be exposed to and many suffered as a result. Most movingly is the case of airman Ronald Maddison who was poisoned with the nerve agent Sarin and subsequently died. Some of the test subjects rebelled and refused to go on with the experiments while elsewhere, others were compelled to continue, with a mixture of bravado and peer pressure used to keep them onside. Some of the injuries these men suffered were catastrophic.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Schmidt reveals that the scientists at Porton Down also had the wider public in their sights. A chemical of ‘largely unknown toxic potential’ was dispersed by plane over civilian populations in Wiltshire, Bedfordshire and Norfolk. Similarly ships, aircraft and moving lorries dispersed the carcinogen zinc cadmium sulphide. The London Underground was also targeted with Bacillus globigii, a bacterium now thought to be linked to food poisoning, eye infections and septicemia released on the Northern Line. While scientists of the time considered these substances to be safe and it is only now that their risks are understood, the fact is that nobody asked the public whether they minded being guinea pigs in tests and scores of people were potentially put at risk.
This is an important book and one that reveals a scandal at the heart of the UK’s defence establishment. I hope more people read this, as someone needs to hold the Government to account.