Cold War at Porton Down

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

Cold War at Porton Down: Medical Ethics and the Legal Dimension of Britain's Biological and Chemical Warfare Programme, 1945 - 1989

Professor Ulf Schmidt

The project aims to provide, for the first time, a comprehensive historical analysis of the ethical and legal implications of Britain’s biological and chemical warfare programme during the Cold War, from 1945 to 1989. So far the debate on non-therapeutic human, animal and environmental experiments which were carried out at Porton Down, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, has been characterised by a lack of historical focus and a medical ethics context. The project aims to examine the extent to which scientists from Porton carried out secret nerve gas and chemical warfare experiments on soldiers who were exposed to toxic agents and chemicals such as Mustard Gas, Sarin, and LSD.

From 1945 to 1989 an estimated 3,400 servicemen are believed to have taken part in nerve agent trials. The case of Ronald Maddison, who died from the effects of an experiment, will be fully analysed. Central to the project are a number of basic questions: Did the subjects give voluntary consent? How was consent obtained? Were the risks explained to the subjects? What safeguards were taken? How, if at all, was research regulated? The analysis of Porton’s institutional history is likely to reveal changes and continuities in personnel and research practices, and thus provide greater insight into the ‘culture of secrecy’. More broadly, it will examine the extent to which Porton and other government agencies adopted the existing medical ethics standards, particularly the Nuremberg Code (1947) and the Declaration of Helsinki (1964).

The project will reconstruct the nature of government-sponsored warfare research in Britain, and assess the ideology, politics and ethics behind Porton’s experimental programme. The project will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between medical science and modern warfare, and of the links between medical ethics and law, issues which are not only of importance in the current biomedical debate, but also in view of the international situation.


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Last Updated: 16/10/2012