NORMAN BAKER reveals the day anthrax was released on the Northern Line

The day anthrax was released in a tunnel on the Northern Line – by scientists from Porton Down… and as ex-MP NORMAN BAKER reveals, it’s far from the only time they’ve used Britons as guinea pigs for experiments

  • On July 26, 1963, Northern Line passengers were subjected to anthrax secretly
  • Part of an experiment conducted by government scientists from Porton Down
  • A second test was then conducted again only a year later by scientists

Norman Baker, Former Liberal Democrat MP, (pictured) discusses how Britons have been used for Government experiments

On July 26, 1963, passengers boarded a Northern Line tube train at Morden in South London heading for the City. Their short journey to work, perhaps to London Bridge or Bank, seemed the same as any other day. But it was far from ordinary. 

What those passengers did not know – could not know – was they were an unwitting cast of extras in a secret experiment conducted by government scientists from Porton Down, headquarters for the country’s military research since 1916.

As the train wound northwards through the dark tunnels between Colliers Wood and Tooting Broadway, a window was opened and a scented powder puff was thrown out on to the tracks below.

This particular powder puff contained not cosmetics but freeze-dried spores from the anthrax family, B globigii bacteria, which can cause eye infections, food poisoning and, more serious still, septicaemia, the cause of deadly sepsis. 

The Northern Line was chosen because, at 17 miles, the line heading north is the longest tunnelled section on the London Underground, ensuring the spores now wafting along it were trapped, unable to disperse in the wind. 

Pushed and pulled along the system by passing trains, the spores took 15 minutes to travel ten miles to Camden Town, contaminating all stops on the way.

There is no record of precisely why this reckless operation took place, although it was doubtless to gauge the behaviour of biological weapons in the event of an enemy attack. It was certainly important enough to be repeated on the same stretch of the Underground a year later.

There is no record, either, of who – if anyone – was made ill by the spores or if anyone complained. But then the health of the London population was clearly not a priority for the military planners in charge.

The only certainty is that this was one of many ways that successive governments chose to play with the lives of ordinary people. Barely remembered today, let alone acknowledged, these experiments are, as my continuing research is making clear, a sinister part of our post-war history – and a warning.

On July 26, 1963, passengers boarded a Northern Line tube train at Morden in South London heading for the City. What those passengers did not know – could not know – was they were an unwitting cast of extras in a secret experiment conducted by government scientists from Porton Down, headquarters for the country’s military research since 1916. Pictured: Commuters on a London Underground station on December 4, 1969

At first, the British authorities confined their tests to service personnel. In 1951, Porton Down (properly known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) began testing nerve gas on soldiers, including those unwillingly enlisted as part of mandatory National Service. Volunteers were offered a small payment of £2 and three days’ extra leave.

The victims were given no meaningful information about the tests. As one Porton Down scientist observed at the time: ‘If you advertised for people to suffer agony, you would not get them [volunteers].’

Many were told the experiments were about finding a cure for the common cold, assured by the medical officer present they were at ‘no risk’. A total of 21,752 soldiers would eventually be exposed to dangerous substances, including LSD .

Some 1,500 were exposed to nerve agents, 400 of them to sarin, a substance that is potentially lethal even in minute quantities.

The sarin caused a number of serious adverse reactions in early 1953, including one man who fell into a coma. The scientists were asked to reduce the dosage to the possible lowest range, which would have been about 10 to 15 milligrams.

But they didn’t, cutting it instead from 300 to 200mg. The servicemen the scientists were dealing with were nothing more than guinea pigs.

One week later, another six servicemen were given 200mg of sarin, applied to a cloth on the inside of their left forearms. Within half an hour, one of the men, 20-year-old Ronald Maddison, was on his way to hospital. Within three hours he was dead. 

As the train wound northwards through the dark tunnels between Colliers Wood and Tooting Broadway, a window was opened and a scented powder puff was thrown out on to the tracks below (stock image)

Following improper pressure from the then Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, the coroner’s conclusion made no reference to sarin. But when the inquest was reopened in 2004, the jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing and concluded that a chemical warfare agent was the cause of death.

Many of Britain’s post-war experiments were inspired by the Americans, who had no compunction in using civilians and servicemen alike.

US officials even used unwitting hospital patients as guinea pigs, shockingly with the consent of their doctors. Between 1953 and 1957, at least 11 terminally ill patients were injected with uranium 235 to test the effects of radioactivity. More than 800 pregnant women were fed a cocktail laced with a radioactive isotope to study the effects on the foetus.

The US army, working with the CIA, was especially interested in mind control. In the 1960s, organised experiments were carried out at an addiction clinic in Lexington, Kentucky, where patients were fed the hallucinogenic drug LSD as part of a depraved ‘memory impairment test’. 

Patients who were black or gay were first in line. The US invited the UK and Canada to participate in its research on people and the UK eagerly agreed to be part of a programme named Artichoke.

In 1972, 19-year-old airman Richard Skinner was told he was at Porton Down to help test protective kit. Instead he was injected with a new drug, T3436, designed to incapacitate the brain. He spent almost five hours in conversation with a fire extinguisher.

A recent survey of veterans who survived Operation Artichoke – and the range of substances involved – found symptoms including premature ageing, hypertension (high blood pressure), chest problems and, for at least one man whose eyes had been exposed to a nameless chemical, blindness.

This particular powder puff contained not cosmetics but freeze-dried spores from the anthrax family, B globigii bacteria, which can cause eye infections, food poisoning and, more serious still, septicaemia, the cause of deadly sepsis (stock image)

By 1999, volunteers were still being used in Porton Down’s Chemical and Biological Defence Sector – 71 of them that year. And as recently as 2014, Porton Down was asking for volunteers to test its chemical decontamination showers.

In 2002, while an MP, I forced the government to release a report giving details of germ war tests they had conducted. The report, which covered the period 1940 to 1979, ran to 56 pages.

It revealed that a trial involving live plague bacteria took place off the west coast of Scotland, near the Isle of Lewis, in 1952. Mid-experiment, a fishing vessel passed through the cloud that was generated.

Another test had seen clouds of dangerous Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis viruses released in the Bahamas. These can cause high fever, even death. Mosquitoes spread the disease.

In Nigeria, Britain conducted open-air experiments with nerve gas weapons. Indeed, the report revealed that more than 750 secret operations, including the Northern Line experiments, had been carried out with members of the public subjected to mock biological and chemical warfare attacks.

It emerged that some four-and- a-half tons of the chemical zinc cadmium sulphide – classed as a chemical weapon in the Second World War – were released into the atmosphere by ship, vehicle and plane.

In one case, a machine was towed along a road near Frome in Somerset to throw it into the air. In 1961, a Land Rover spewed out cadmium sulphide on the roads between Ilchester and Bristol. The scientists in the Land Rover wore full protective clothing and were told to be careful. The general public was left in ignorance.

Cadmium is an impurity found in zinc and those working with it in, for example, battery manufacturing wear protective clothing to prevent it being inhaled. It was identified as carcinogenic more than a century ago.

Yet cadmium was also showered over Cardington in Bedfordshire, Chippenham, Dorchester, and villages around Salisbury. And planes dropped tons of the stuff over a 40- mile stretch of East Anglia, including Norwich in the 1960s.

The aim of this cynical Porton Down exercise? To see what would happen.

I recently spoke to a senior throat consultant, Dr Wyn Parry, who was struck by the high incidence of oesophagus cancer in the Norwich area when he arrived there in 1999, a suspicion confirmed by inspecting pathology reports. 

He told me he was seeing as many throat cancer cases as in his previous role in the Nottingham area – even though that population had been three times as large. He observed that many of those affected by the throat cancers had links to the land, such as through farming or gardening. 

The Northern Line was chosen because, at 17 miles, the line heading north is the longest tunnelled section on the London Underground, ensuring the spores now wafting along it were trapped, unable to disperse in the wind (stock image)

Further investigation revealed that the unusual spike in cases corresponded to a degree to the flight path taken by the aeroplane that dropped the chemical. Numbers seemed unusually high in Norwich and King’s Lynn, for example, but normal in Great Yarmouth and Ipswich.

After the story gained attention in the local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, Dr Parry received an unexpected phone call from a senior person at Public Health England who told him the incidence of the disease was nothing to worry about. 

Dr Parry, it was unmistakeably suggested, could safely let the matter rest. The then Defence Minister Lewis Moonie also conceded to me in a parliamentary answer that ‘numerous experiments to assess the spread and transmission of bacterial spores’ had been carried out. In total, more than a million people were exposed to bacteria that mimicked anthrax.

On one occasion spores were sprayed inland from a ship off the Dorset coast.

In 2016, the government issued this statement about the tests on people at Porton Down: ‘The Volunteer Programme has always been operated to the highest ethical standards of the day.’ What Ministers failed to note is that the highest ethical standards of the day were very low indeed.

The world was rightly horrified when the truth came out about the experiments conducted by the Nazi regime, most notably by Dr Josef Mengele. Never again, the world said, as it watched the Nuremberg trial in 1946 of 23 German doctors who had conducted the most appalling experiments on people.

At first, the British authorities confined their tests to service personnel. In 1951, Porton Down (properly known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) began testing nerve gas on soldiers, including those unwillingly enlisted as part of mandatory National Service. Volunteers were offered a small payment of £2 and three days’ extra leave. Pictured: File image of Porton Down on July 7, 2018

Yet before Nuremberg, both the UK and US had been perfectly willing to conduct their own experiments on people. In British India, our military scientists deliberately exposed hundreds of Indians to mustard gas in specially created gas chambers, for example.

It is all the more disturbing then that Britain – hand-in-hand as ever with the US – actually intensified experiments on our own people in the post-war years. The Nuremberg Code on chemical and biological experiments, it seemed, was good for barbarians but not something that should interfere with the freedom of our own scientists.

These are extraordinary times, and few can doubt the extraordinary triumph of the current vaccination programme against Covid-19. Yet remember this, too: hand-in-hand with medical scientists, government agents have taken control over the lives of ordinary people in a way unprecedented since wartime.

Conducted openly and with the best of intentions, such things as test and trace, lockdowns, school closures and the jabs themselves are nonetheless experiments.

How quickly will Ministers and their advisers relinquish the powers they now enjoy? What further mass experiments will be judged necessary in the name of fighting Covid-19?

And who, these days, is willing to hold those in authority to account?

Not the complaisant BBC, or even ITV, who seem terrified of questioning the Government’s coronavirus message.

They have not, for example, reported that the British Army’s 77th Brigade has been charged with the task of countering Covid-19 misinformation. Is countering misinformation really a military objective? Who decided that? And what is the 77th Brigade doing?

Even in a democracy, we should never assume the government of the day is right or even well-intentioned. That’s not how a democracy works. Even now, at a time of a public health crisis, it is our duty to question. We have the right to know the facts and make up our own minds – as the disgraceful secrecy of the post-war years makes clear.

We must never, out of fear, trade our freedom and our liberties for the warm feeling of security.

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