020 7650 1200

Porton Down tests declared unethical

A report published by the MoD, regarding tests of chemical agents, involved "serious departures" from the ethical standards that should have been observed at the time.

Posted on 18 July 2006

A number of trials in which chemical agents were tested on human volunteers at Porton Down from the 1940s to the 1970s involved "serious departures" from the ethical standards that should have been observed at the time, according to Professor Sir Ian Kennedy, an expert on ethics, whose views were in a report published by the Ministry of Defence on Friday 14th July 2006.

The report is a historical survey of tests conducted at Porton Down from 1939-89, launched by the MoD in 2001 in response to the concerns of veterans who had attended Porton Down that they may have suffered lasting damage to their health as a result of the tests.

Unethical testing

Professor Kennedy raised particular concerns over wartime trials involving the exposure of volunteers to agents found in German shells, as well as tests in the 1950s involving exposure to the nerve agents VX and GD. These included trials of liquid nerve agents on bare skin, carried out between 1951 and 1953, including one test which led to the death of 20-year-old Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison in 1953.

Professor Kennedy also said that a "question mark" could also be raised over experiments carried out from the 1950s to the 1970s in which veterans eyes were exposed to the nerve agent sarin GB to induce an eye condition called “miosis” (the constriction of the pupil of the eye), which he concluded "might be said by some to have constituted too great a step into the unknown."

Ministry of Defence research project

Meanwhile, the preliminary findings of an MoD funded research project conducted by Oxford University, London Imperial College of Science and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine entitled "Symptoms, ill-health and quality of life in a support group of Porton Down veterans" found that those veterans who responded to the survey reported poorer quality of life than the general population of a similar age. The authors concluded that they could not rule out ill-health being potentially associated with the veterans’ exposures at Porton Down. The final results of their study are due to be published in early 2007.

Leigh Day & Co and Thomson Snell & Passmore solicitors are representing hundreds of Porton Down veterans who are seeking compensation from the Ministry of Defence for the injuries they sustained after being subjected to chemical warfare experiments at Porton Down from the 1940s to the 1980s.  


The veterans state that they were not informed about the identity of the chemicals prior to being exposed nor the risks associated with them.  It was only recently that they first became aware of the chemicals to which they had actually been subjected, including the nerve agent sarin and hallucinogens such as LSD.

Earlier this year, the MoD accepted an inquest verdict of unlawful killing by reason of gross negligence manslaughter in respect of the death of Ronald Maddison.  The MoD accepted that it had been grossly negligent in the conduct and planning of the experiment, which led to Mr Maddison’s tragic death.

Both law firms are working towards presenting the MoD with the cohort of further cases later this year.

If you have any queries regarding this matter, please contact Martyn Day or Sapna Malik on 020 7650 1200.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.