secret-scienceThe subjects of human experiments involving chemical agents carried out in India by the UK’s Porton Down military research station are unlikely ever to have given meaningful consent, a new book reveals.

One such experiment resulted in an Indian sepoy, serving as a soldier, suffering severe burns to his face after his respirator slipped during exposure to a toxic agent.

It was one of many examples of secret experiments conducted in the name of military research in the Indian sub-continent since the First World War, now chronicled for the first time in a new book by University of Kent historian Professor Ulf Schmidt.

The 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, Canada and Australia. 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 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 little-publicised 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 in the UK and in other countries.

Professor Schmidt highlights the historical context of such experiments. He writes: ‘As an island nation, Britain was widely believed to be particularly vulnerable to large-scale chemical and biological attacks. During the Cold War, research and development activities reached far beyond the identification and testing of ever more toxic chemical compounds in the secure confines of Porton’s experimental landscape. With an estimated total of over 750 field trials carried out by Porton between 1946 and 1976, Britain was turned into a large-scale open-air laboratory; her people into an army of unconsenting participants’.

In the same period many other people – mainly service personnel – ‘volunteered’ to take part in experiments. Secret Science poses the wider question as to why human beings participate in such experiments. In many cases, Professor Schmidt suggests, the scientist ‘takes on the role of the seemingly selfless father figure, assuring his subjects that their joint enterprise will ultimately, in some distant future, be of benefit to the greater good; resources and human sacrifice are an apparently inevitable necessity’.

Although Professor Schmidt identifies that in many cases secrecy impacted on medical ethics in relation to issues of informed consent and full disclosure, he concludes by arguing that secrecy and medical ethics do not have to be mutually exclusive.

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