Rob Evans, 'Gassed. British Chemical Warfare Experiments on Humans at Porton Down'

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Review by Martyn Lowe

Here is an interesting question for you: how does the military protect its soldiers from chemical weapons? The answer, of course, is by exposing them to these toxic gases in “controlled” experiments, as “human guinea pigs”.

Since the British Government opened the “chemical warfare experimental establishment” at Porton Down in 1916, it is estimated that some 30,000 military personnel have been used in such tests.

Porton scientists also conducted these test on themselves. Tests that included giving themselves doses of everything from Mustard to CS gases, in order to find how they work, and to develop “protective” measures against them. Gassed is the first book to look at the nature of the chemical (toxic) agents being tested on people at Porton, and to give an historical account of how the tests were conducted.

The book gives a voice to these who took part in these experiments, and who are now suffering from chronic ill-health. Military personnel who were never told what they were being exposed to, and who are still trying to find out just what it was.

There is also an account of the death of Airman Ronald Maddison, which occurred at Porton in 1953. It is a death which is still surrounded by a degree of secrecy and which is being investigated by the police.

Not that the book is without its lighter moments. There is an account of a 1960s experiment entitled “Operation Moneybags” which intended discovering what the effects of LSD use might be on operational performance. A group of Royal Marines were dosed with LSD, and given a training exercise and the description of what followed is one of the most bizarre accounts I have read in a long time.

The book also looks at the ethics surrounding human experiments and how attitudes to them changed during the 20th century.

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