How governments experiment on people

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‘Observers’ on field trial, c. 1956 by IWM, Photographic Collection, Prog. 26/56. © Imperial War Museums (F 637)
The purpose of the masks was to allow for the collection of simulants during aircraft spraying trials.

In 1963 the UK’s Porton Down military science centre carried out tests to release zinc cadmium sulphide in the atmosphere over Norwich.

It was one of many examples of secret experiments conducted in the name of military research during the 1950s and ‘60s, now chronicled comprehensively for the first time in a new book by University historian Professor Ulf Schmidt.

Secret of ScienceThe book, entitled Secret Science (Oxford University Press), provides the most comprehensive overview to date of state military scientific research on chemical and biological weapons by Britain, the US and Canada since the First World War. It shows that the history of human and animal experimentation should not be seen as a national issue alone but rather in the context of an international network of warfare scientists.

It also highlights how breaches of medical ethics have been more widespread and systemic than previously assumed – and were carried out over a prolonged period of time. This led Professor Schmidt, of the School of History, to challenge the claim that ethics violations on both civilians and soldiers were ‘isolated’ incidents.

Professor Schmidt further considers how the medical ethics of experimentation have evolved – and suggests that further changes could yet see a more ethical approach that would not compromise the state’s ability to test new weapons.

Using examples, such as the death of the Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison from nerve gas exposure in 1953 and of the Porton Down chemical warfare veterans, Professor Schmidt exposes the ways in which chemical and biological experiments touched on the lives of thousands of servicemen and civilians.

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