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Death, Secrets, And Steel Coffins: The History Of Nerve Agent Experiments At Porton Down

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

James is a published author with four pop-history and science books to his name. He specializes in history, strange science, and anything out of the ordinary.

Senior Staff Writer

Military personel carrying out decontamination work following the use of a nerve agent in Salisbury, England. Amani A/Shutterstock.com

Nerve agents – poisonous chemicals that prevent the nervous system from functioning properly – are extremely dangerous for your health. 

There are several different types, including Sarin, Tabun, VX, and Soman. They all work in a similar way, targeting the cholinergic system and overstimulating the nervous system, which causes a person's muscles to contract uncontrollably. The agents target an enzyme in the space between nerve cells and muscle cells known as synapses, Reuters explains.

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When you're functioning normally, your nerve endings release acetylcholine. When this touches a muscle, it causes it to contract. The enzyme acetylcholinesterase then sticks to the acetylcholine, disabling it and causing the muscle to relax again. However, nerve agents disrupt this process by attaching to the enzyme. This causes a buildup of acetylcholine in the muscles, making them go haywire, resulting in symptoms such as respiratory failure, convulsions, loss of consciousness, diarrhea, paralysis, excessive drooling, and sweating, before death.

It's nasty stuff, which is why you wouldn't want to expose thousands of your own soldiers to nerve agents if you can avoid it. This is a statement that many nations, including the US, Canada, France, the Soviet Union, and Iraq, clearly disagree on. Of particular note is the UK, which conducted experiments on humans over the course of many years at the infamous facility Porton Down, sometimes with less-than-ethical levels of consent and occassionally with fatal consequences.

During the last few years of the Second World War, the Nazis began developing nerve gas Sarin, stocks of which the British discovered in 1945. Upon finding out that the Nazis had created a heinous weapon, Britain immediately went about testing it on humans in the hopes they could manufacture it themselves.

During one phase of the experiments in the mid-1950s, the military wanted to answer the non-sinister question typical of the good guys of "how much nerve gas would it take to kill a man through clothes or on the skin?" To estimate this, they got 396 men (they ultimately performed nerve agent trials on more than 1,500 subjects). In groups, the men stepped into a gas chamber, wearing no protective clothing but a respirator. The scientists then exposed the volunteers to sarin and measured the reaction in their blood. They hadn't intended to give them fatal doses, but to administer a non-lethal dose and then extrapolate from the effects.

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During one test, a man named Kelly slipped into a coma, from which he recovered. In response to this, the military slightly lowered the dose for everyone else, from 300 milligrams of a deadly nerve agent to 200 milligrams of the deadly nerve agent. This lower dose was given to 20-year-old Leading Aircraftman Ronald George Maddison on May 6, 1953. He was offered 15 shillings and three days of leave to take part in the experiment, which he was going to use to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend Mary. 

Like hundreds of others and the five volunteers in the gas chamber with him, Ronald was given his dose. The scientists applied his to a piece of cloth wrapped around his arm to ascertain the effect of the nerve agent through clothing. After 20 minutes, he reported not feeling well. Sweating, he left the chamber with his contaminated Sarin cloth removed. However, it was too late and shortly afterwards he reported hearing loss, before he lost consciousness altogether. He was taken away and treated, but ultimately died a few hours later at the Porton medical center.

Consent to experiments at Porton Down during this era is subject to some controversy, with witness statements from the 1950s saying that volunteers were given "a general idea" of what the experiments would involve and "possible effects", though it was placed on the volunteers themselves to ask further questions about what they were about to be subjected to. One witness at the coroner's inquest stated that volunteers had been “given a broad idea and they are told by the Medical Officer that there is no risk," while one scientist said of volunteers: "If you advertised for people to suffer agony you would not get them.”

Maddison's family claim that Ronald believed he was participating in research into a cure for the common cold. We may never know whether or not this allegation is correct, though similar allegations were made against the facility for a different study in which volunteers were told they were participating in research into a cure for colds before being given LSD, leading to terrifying hallucinations for which the volunteers were unprepared.

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Muddying the waters still is the secrecy surrounding Maddison's death. Shortly after his death, an inquest was held in secret "for reasons of national security", after which witnesses and the boy's father allege they were sworn to secrecy.

"I was called into an office and read the riot act by a medical officer," one witness to Maddison's death, Alfred Thornhill, told the Guardian. "He made me sign something and told me if I ever spoke a word about what I saw at Porton Down I would be sent to prison. I was frightened and didn't want to go to jail, so I didn't tell any of the other lads what I had seen." 

Maddison's family were at first sworn to secrecy under the UK secrets act and were given his body in a steel coffin, bolted so that nobody could look inside. They didn't tell Ronald's family this because they had also been sworn to secrecy.

Following his death, Porton Down continued testing nerve agents on thousands of people, all the way up to 1989.


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