Taking Back Our Stolen History
Porton Down Lab is Founded: The Chemical and Germ Warfare Lab that Used Animals and Humans as Lab Rats
Porton Down Lab is Founded: The Chemical and Germ Warfare Lab that Used Animals and Humans as Lab Rats

Porton Down Lab is Founded: The Chemical and Germ Warfare Lab that Used Animals and Humans as Lab Rats

On 7 March 1916, Sergeant Major Dobbs of the Royal Engineers, the first person to carry out defense operations at the site, reported for duty at Porton Down. Since then, the work at Porton Down has developed and evolved, with the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) now present on the 7000 acres of defence-owned property.

(The Mirror) The 7,000 acre site, near Salisbury, is one of the UK’s most secretive and controversial military research facilities and the oldest chemical warfare research installations in the world. Scientists from Porton were among the first to create biological weapons as well as one of the world’s most lethal chemical weapons, but now its main purpose is to support the military and help combat terrorism.

Porton Down opened in 1916 as the

" >War Department Experimental Station for testing chemical weapons during WW1. Scientists at the lab researched and developed weapons agents used by the British military during the war such as chlorine, deadly sarin and tabun nerve gas, mustard gas, CS and CR riot gas, LSD and another mind-binding drug believed to be known as BZ. After the war the government decided that work should continue at the site and by 1930 it had grown and developed into the Chemical Defense Experimental Station.

Since its establishment in 1916, it has undergone several changes of title and responsibility:

  • Royal Engineers Experimental Station 1916-1929
  • Chemical Warfare Experimental Station (CWES) 1929-1930
  • Chemical Defence Experimental Station (CDES) 1930-1948
  • Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment (CDEE) 1948-1970
  • Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE) 1970-1991
  • Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment (CBDE) 1991-1995
  • Chemical and Biological Defence (CBD) Sector of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) 1995-2001
  • Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), Porton Down 2001-

Human Experimentation

It has been rumored that at Porton Down not only were animals bred and tortured in horrific conditions, but humans too, including servicemen, the elderly and the mentally handicapped were being subjected to terrifying and dangerous experiments, evidence of which is just now coming to light. Catholic priest Monsignor John Barry raised the matter almost 30 years ago with ministers. He said that it was his belief that unlawful killings were taking place:

Indeed, journalists from the Daily Express who have single-handedly championed the cause of many of the victims, believe that they now have new evidence of the experiments which allegedly took place between 1964 and 1966. According to their sources, scientists tested a secret killer virus known more commonly today as a ‘biological warfare agent’ on dying leukemia patients in an NHS hospital. Dolores McMahon, a microbiologist and a junior member of the team who was not involved in decision making, denied there was anything unethical or irregular about the lengthy experiment with Kyasanur Forest Monkey Disease on 33 patients at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London. She said that ethics had now changed and added: “Of course, you have to remember in those days everyone with leukemia died anyway.”

According to intelligence sources, more than 400 complaints and allegations were made from surviving servicemen and women covering a period of time from the 1950’s right up to 1989.The allegations strengthen the belief that there has been a major cover-up by the British Government and intelligence services.

The allegations are not that easily dismissed however, and tough detectives from Operation Antler are determined to get to the truth. Faced with a huge catalogue of “illegal” experiments, they have now learned of the new evidence. The information implies that the dying patients – many suffering from dementia – were without relatives who could and almost certainly would have protected them from MOD scientists.

What is clear is that a major breakdown of communication happened, for the Monsignor’s claims were passed to the then Liberal Party leader, Sir David Steel. The material referred to as “official documents” was originally handed to the priest in 1970 by conscience-stricken members of his congregation in Scotland. He then chose to reveal the information in a speech to the Edinburgh Business Club in January of that year.

I have seen the evidence which I think is genuine,” he said. “There is a certain section of the Ministry of Defense which uses elderly people as guinea pigs for experiments and quietly puts them to death afterwards. It is all carefully hidden by the Official Secrets Act.”

Such an allegation if made today would have serious implications, but Monsignor simply gave the papers to Mr Steel. He then apparently held a meeting with Dennis Healey, who was then Defense Minister for Harold Wilson’s Labor Government. The file was given to Healey. The short-lived scandal fizzled-out following a speech by Prime Minister Wilson. He said the matter had been “fully investigated,” though he didn’t say who by. Furthermore, he never mentioned what if any conclusions had been reached by “this authority.”

One campaigner who has tried for many years to uncover the truth regarding the service personnel experiments is Liz Sigmund. When she learned of Barry’s claims, she believed there had indeed been a cover-up. Interestingly, she gave journalists from the Express two letters from the Monsignor in which he writes: “I believed and still believe the reports I received.” He wouldn’t divulge the source of his information however, because he thought they would suffer “personal repercussions.”

Sigmund also has in her possession a letter from David Steel’s personal assistant who says she will look for a copy of the documents he supposedly was handed in 1970. David Steel, now Lord Steel, is Speaker of the newly founded Scottish Parliament. His assistant told journalists: “He has no recollection whatsoever of this case and his records do not go back that far.” Lord Healey’s secretary said something similar: “He doesn’t know about it. He can’t remember it.”

Ms Sigmund had several conversations with Monsignor Barry in the 1970’s. She recalls how he told her one patient was suffering from dementia and had no relatives. She says:

There was a statement from Harold Wilson in the House which virtually dismissed the allegations out of hand but we live in different times now.

We now know that some 20,000 servicemen were duped into volunteering for research into the common cold and then used in the most horrendous experiments with nerve gas and all sorts of things.

We know that 40 people were injected with the biological warfare agent Kyasanur Forest Monkey (KFM) disease in 1968. That was apparently done to see if it was of any therapeutic value to leukemia patients. KFM disease has a 28 per cent fatality rate and causes horribly painful encephalitis in humans.

Why was Porton Down involved in this search for a leukemia therapy in a NHS cancer ward? It is a coincidence that just three years later KFM became a recognized biological warfare agent? Did Porton Down want to examine the pathology of a biological warfare bug as it acts on humans?

An MOD spokeswoman said: “These are not things we could respond to quickly because it would take some time to research records from that period.”

Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison died aged 20 in 1953 after taking part in sarin nerve agent toxicity tests along with at least 400 other service men. During the tests sarin was dripped onto his arm through two layers of cloth to establish the amount of nerve gas which when applied to clothes or the bare skin would cause incapacitation or death. He died 40 minutes later and an inquest in 2004 returned a verdict of unlawful killing. The reopening of the Maddison file shows that the “misadventure verdict” of the original inquest, held in secret in 1953, was wrong and a major cover-up by the MOD. Ten days after the soldier’s death, an inquest was held behind closed doors “in the interests of national security.” Only MOD officials and Mr Maddison’s father were allowed to attend. Incredibly, he too was sworn to secrecy and for years never told anyone what he had heard. Porton Down have admitted the government “hushed up” details because it wanted to hide from the public the extent of human experiments and work on nerve gas during the cold war.

Furthermore, there are fresh calls to find out just who the authority was that investigated the original 1970’s claims. Harold Wilson confidently explained that all the allegations were nonsense and “had been investigated.” Journalists and pressure groups are demanding to know: Did Porton Down actually investigate itself, or was it a government agency? Some analysts believe Harold Wilson was given inaccurate information, whilst others believe a cover-up of some magnitude has occurred.

Liz Sigmund said:

The question is who investigated them and what did they find? I think it is fair to say that there is no faith in the Ministry of Defense investigating their own misdeeds if that is what actually happened.

We don’t even know where these terrible allegations took place. I spoke to John Barry on the telephone in the seventies and asked him where it had happened. I asked ‘Was it at Porton or at the base in Nancekuke in Cornwall? He said that it wasn’t either of those places but another establishment somewhere in the South East. He intimated that it had happened to people suffering from dementia who had no families. If that is true, then it is too horrible to contemplate.”

Another twist to the Porton Down affair is contained in the recently released book Inside Outside by controversial MP Tam Dalyell. The autobiography contains an entire chapter on the base. He was admonished by the Speaker of the House of Commons for wearing a black tricorn hat, for events surrounding his campaign which exposed the work of Porton Down. The MP who has long believed in a Freedom of Information Act said:

For years I believed the MOD stitched me up over Porton Down in revenge for other issues I had embarrassed them about. But now it’s dawning on me that they did it because they were desperate to keep me away from the subject of Porton Down. They wanted to make the subject a no-go zone.”

Fearing the outcome of the Operation Antler, the MOD announced on 21 November that they will launch clinical trials on the volunteers to see if their health was damaged. The Government is also on the backfoot. A minister has finally acknowledged that victims of the secret experiments it carried out on over 20,000 human “guinea pigs” will be offered “full examinations” to see if the experiments are responsible for an array of illnesses. The MOD has also admitted that up to 4,000 servicemen were subjected to nerve agent experiments, almost a third more than previously claimed. But an MOD official has reiterated that they have seen “no scientific or medical evidence” linking the health of veterans to their participation in nuclear tests or the Gulf War.

Chemical weapons were also tested on human skin removed from NHS plastic surgery patients without their knowledge, a hospital admitted. The skin, which was removed during breast and abdominal surgery at Salisbury district hospital, was used by scientists at the nearby Porton Down chemical warfare facility to test how human tissue was damaged by corrosive chemicals.

It was also used to investigate how drugs could be injected through the skin, and to develop barrier creams to protect against chemical attack. Consent forms signed by patients said the skin would be used for “medical research” without explaining that it was being used by the defense evaluation and research agency (Dera) which runs the facilities on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. Skin removed during the normal course of surgery was sold to military researchers for an annual fee of £17,000. The practice began in 1995 and was stopped in 2001 in the wake of the Alder Hey report. The hospital said it recognized some patients might object to their skin being used for defense experiments, and offered apologies. But Salisbury community health council, which represents patients’ interests, said it was surprised to learn of the sale of body parts.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of Dera, confirmed the skin was used in chemical warfare tests.

Some of the tests were to find out how the skin absorbs chemicals that might be used to attack our armed forces. But they were solely for defense purposes – we stopped developing chemicals for attack at Porton Down in the 1950s.

Most of the chemical tests done were for the benefit of civilians. They were with corrosive chemicals that are used in the home and work place, to see how the skin would be affected by a spillage.”

The government rationalizes that “without their involvement (of humans) we could not have developed the highly effective protective clothing and medical countermeasures that our armed forces rely on“. Adding: “We still carry out trials with human volunteers to make protective equipment easier to wear and to develop better training procedures. “These trials comply with all nationally and internationally accepted ethical standards.” Some of the equipment includes better gas masks and the creation of lighter, more bullet-proof body armor.

Some testimonies below:

It was hideous, a hutted camp, where it seemed to do nothing but rain. There were a series of bunkers to which you were thrust from time to time to be gassed with CS gas and to go through ghastly exercises underground wearing a gas mask.” – Patrick Mercer, retired army officer.

They put us in the gas chambers. We tested CS gas, some of these tests are horrendous. I had no idea what they were doing – as far as I was concerned they were doing common cold research tests. I volunteered to earn a bit of extra leave. In one test we had to stand in front of a stream of gas which I could not stand for more than a minute. My face was stinging, my throat was red raw and my lungs were burning. I was paid two shillings. It was a dirty trick, plain and simple.” – Gordon Bell (airman at Porton Down in the 1950s)

As far as we were all concerned the tests were part of a programme searching for a cure for the common cold, if I had thought it was anything more than that I would not have put my name forward. “They gave us each a glass of water and we were told to drink it, which I did and I felt no adverse symptoms. It tasted like water to me, but some of the others who had taken the drink literally started trying to climb up the wall and cowering in corners. They were screaming and hallucinating and saying there were giant spiders in the room. It is now pretty obvious that they had been given LSD or another drug, and I was lucky that there did not appear to be any in my glass.” – Eric Hatherall (storeman, Fleet Air Arm)

A loudspeaker informed us that the dosage was about to be administered and to inhale normally. The immediate reaction was a tightening of the muscles and the lungs. For some volunteers this lasted several seconds while others experienced it for several minutes. Other volunteers suffered ‘horrendous’ health problems including severe headaches, skin and eye cancers, brain tumours, paralysis, chronic bronchitis, asthma, nervous disorders and blistering. At that time I was as strong as an ox, I could carry two bags of cement on my shoulders. Now, I can’t even lift two bags of sugar. I firmly believe that the Government at the time, and subsequent Governments who have covered up the events, are guilty of war crimes.” – Michael Roche (corporal, Royal Engineers)

We were taken into a field and told to go into a metal cone. I had a perforated can of flies and a rabbit in a cage. We were told that when we heard an explosion we had to go and stand near a wooden stake outside. They asked if we could smell anything. All the officers were wearing gas masks, but we didn’t have them.”The next thing we knew we were all in bed and my hands, wrists and ankles were all aching. They never told us we were open to any danger.” – Peter Carpenter (Lance Bombardier with the 37th Heavy Royal Artillery)

My husband set off for work at Porton Down on September 20, 1966 When I saw him that night he was in a terrible state , he had agonising stomach pains. He said, “I’ve had that bloody American bubonic plague injection.Three months later he died, I was told he had died of stomach cancer but I know they gave him a cocktail of 19 injections of smallpox, anthrax, plague, and polio over five years. I was told that he needed the immunisation jabs but I believe that was just an excuse. They were using him as a guinea pig. He wouldn’t have refused because he would have been afraid to lose his job.” – Hettie Nyman (widow of Frederick)

My husband Private William Dyer was 19 when he was paid a shilling a day to crawl through a field sprayed with radioactive chemicals wearing overalls and afterwards be scanned for radiation levels. He died the day after his 49th birthday in 1987 of Hodgkin’s disease – cancer of the lymph nodes. They volunteered for what they thought were simple tests. They were young and wanted to earn a few extra bob – but now look at the price they have paid.” – Jeanette Dyer, widow of William (Somerset Light infantry soldier)

I specifically asked them what the long-term implications of taking part in the tests were because I was not happy about it. Of course if they had mentioned what happened to Ronald Maddison (he died minutes after being tested with Sarin in 1953) I would not have taken part. I believed that this would help my chances of promotion and I also received £140 on top of my £400-a-month wages. Scientists told me that I would be exposed to the nerve gas without an antidote. I felt that at this stage I could not back out without harming his career.I was led into a chamber and told to walk around while the gas was administered. I had tunnel vision, and felt sick. My chest constricted and it was like breathing through a straw. My head ached terribly. The door finally opened and I was ushered out by scientists wearing respirators and overalls. They completed tests on me , assured me that my health would recover and told me to go home and wash my uniform.” – Ian Foulkes (private 28th Signal Regiment)

In 1941 I was subjected to six weeks of tests with gases and sprays that burnt, itched and blistered the skin. Today I am dying of lung cancer. I believe that the tests at Porton Down could be to blame; I also suspect that they may be responsible for the fact that Terry, my 49-year-old son, has lymph cancer. I am not looking for compensation, I just want the world to know that I and other British women were used as guinea pigs by the British Government.

I volunteered for the tests when I was a sergeant in the 24th Heavy Mixed Anti-Aircraft Training Regiment, after a request from a senior female officer. The volunteers were not informed that they would test chemical weapons; instead they were told their co-operation would help to end the war as part of a secret mission. I wanted to help my country, and believed that the Army would not do anything to harm me. At Porton Down, the volunteers were asked to sign the Offical Secrets Act and told they would be paid a shilling a day. Every day, I was subjected to gases and sprays that left me in pain or covered in sores. Mustard gas was placed on my arms. It burnt for a few minutes until I could wipe it off.In other experiments we ran through boggy fields and were sprayed by light aircraft with substances that burnt our eyes and skin and left blisters. I still love England and the Army and I can even forgive them for what they did, but I want them to admit what they have done to women as well as men.” – Mrs Pat Cunningham (sergeant, 24th Heavy Mixed Anti-Aircraft Training Regiment)

What can you say? no one can describe the feeling when I see my mum still upset (my dad died in 1956 age 26) It would appear he was critically ill only 4 months after taking part in as we have recently found out what was Sarin gas “only a small amount” not much comfort when my dad died at 26. To discover your own country can do this to there own people is unbelievable.I remember being told small snippets when I was younger and thought it far fetched, how wrong. My Mum has told me she could not have pushed things this far herself – she should not have had to in the first place if the government had shown a bit more respect for people. No wonder they hang their head in shame, they deserve to.” – Chris Bishop


Initial samples of the Ebola virus were sent to the Porton Down lab in 1976. The lab now allegedly contains samples of some of the world’s most aggressive diseases including Ebola, anthrax and the plague.

Dying hospital patients were deliberately infected with potentially lethal tropical diseases by the Porton Down scientists. Medics examined the impact of two horrific viruses by injecting terminally-ill men and women being treated at leading London hospital St Thomas’s. The experiments were carried out at the height of Porton Down’s testing program for nerve and biological weapons in the mid-1960s.

The tests were headed by Gordon Smith, Porton Down’s director, who has since died. Thirty-three patients suffering from leukaemia or carcinoma were injected with either Kyasanur Forest disease or Langat virus. Only four showed any benefit but still died within a matter of months. A report of the experiments in the British Medical Journal in 1966 claimed that details of what the tests were all about were explained to the patients.

Aerial release trials

Between 1953 and 1976 a number of aerial release trials were carried out to help the government understand how a biological attack might spread across the UK. The government said: “Given the international situation at the time these trials were conducted in secret,” and added: “The information obtained from these trials has been and still is vital to the defense of the UK.”



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