Cold War at Porton Down

The History of Biochemical Warfare Research and Human Experimentation, 1945 - 1989

Ronald Maddison

Ronald Maddison

On 6 May 1953, 200 milligrams of liquid sarin were poured onto a double layer of uniform clothing that was tied on the arm of Leading Aircraftsman Ronald Maddison, a British Royal Air Force engineer. Within half an hour the twenty-year-old Maddison lost consciousness. He died later that day. The experiment took place at the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment Porton Down in Wiltshire, Great Britain’s military research and development facility since the First World War. A Coroners inquest, held in secret at the time for reasons of national security, concluded that Maddison’s death was attributable to “misadventure” that resulted in the young serviceman choking to death. Continued complaints about human experiments at the site throughout the years, and allegations of hundreds of other experiment-related illnesses, led to a comprehensive police investigation, named “Operation Antler”, which began in the late 1990s.

In 2002, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, ordered a fresh inquest into the death of Ronald Maddison. Finally, in November 2004, a Coroner’s Inquest into Maddison’s death ruled that he was “unlawfully killed” at the hands of the state. After 64 days of evidence, the jury concluded that the cause of Mr Maddison’s death was the “application of a nerve agent in a non-therapeutic experiment”. Many lawyers and experts see this as a momentous moment in legal history, which may impact on hundreds of servicemen who were exposed to toxic agents and chemicals during the Cold War, and it may even have had significant implications for the Gulf-War veterans.

In February 2006, the Ministry of Defence and Ronald Maddison's family agreed to the charge of "gross negligence". This ruling was the foundation for a broader compensation claim by 360 Porton Down veterans who had undergone tests during the Cold War. On the 31st January 2008 the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Derek Twigg, announced to the House of Commons the agreement of a compensation package totalling £3 million along with an apology and accepted that "that there were aspects of the trials where there may have been shortcomings and where, in particular, the life or health of participants may have been put at risk".

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Last Updated: 16/10/2012