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Dr Fred Pattison
"I was afraid that I was permanently blinded"
 real 28k

John Ilett
A rather comfortable way of spending the war
 real 28k

Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 12:19 GMT 13:19 UK
In pursuit of the ultimate weapon
Nature
The Cambridge team were in a race with the enemy
By Natasha Loder

Wartime scientists have revealed how they tested chemicals on themselves as they searched for new weapons with which to fight the Germans.

The researchers were part of a secret unit of chemists set up at Cambridge University, UK.

On one occasion, after having been in the gas chamber, I found that I was virtually blind for about 10 days

Dr Fred Pattison
The team quickly developed many potential compounds that were tested on animals. But to find out which were the most promising for the Ministry of Defence, the team would test potentially risky gases on themselves.

The scientists have told their story to the journal Nature. Dr Fred Pattison, who worked in the unit in 1943, told the BBC: "There was a research team assembled to work in Cambridge during the last war to prepare new types of potential chemical warfare agents and they were for retribution in case a gas attack came from the other side.

"Sometimes we went into the gas chamber armed with a pencil and paper for a 10-minute exposure and we noted down what we found on ourselves."

Nerve gases

Dr Pattison said the research team were trying to find out what symptoms the gases caused at doses too low to cause death. Temporary blindness was usually the first symptom experienced by the participants.

Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea were also sometimes the side-effects of the tests. But what nobody realised at the time was that some of the organophosphate compounds they were making and testing were what are now known as nerve gases.

"On one occasion, after having been in the gas chamber, I found that I was virtually blind for about 10 days," Dr Pattison said. "Normally one can see the outline of a window at night-time but I couldn't see that and I was afraid that I was permanently blinded.

"But I managed to stagger out of bed and turn on the light and the light showed up as a dim glowing bulb, so I knew I wasn't blind and after about 10 days my sight returned to normal again."

Many others on the team experienced temporary blindness but not usually for more than a couple of days. The scientists had to trust each other to make the correct calculations about what constituted a safe "sub-lethal" dose. Although this may seem like an extraordinary risk to us today, the chemists taking part say they saw it very differently in the context of a war.

'Ultimate weapon'

"I was one that felt that sitting there was a rather comfortable way of spending the war when friends were otherwise zooming off in their aeroplanes, or tramping across the deserts," said unit researcher John Ilett. "But you were doing the thing as a wartime job.

"It was not a matter of staying up in the university as an academic but working on a war effort to enable the forces to have another weapon. A weapon we hoped would be an ultimate weapon."

When the team found promising new compounds, such as diisopropyl fluorophosphate, these were developed at the Ministry of Defence's Porton Down research centre.

And although the unit was broken up at the end of the war, much of its work laid the groundwork for the organophosphates which are still used as insecticides to this day.

Main image - back row left to right: John Woodcock, Fred Pattison, Cyril ?; middle row: Harold Cook, Fred Naylor, Ivor Wilding (seated), Bernard Saunders, H. McCombie, John Ilett, Norman Chapman, Robin Heap; front row: seated, Joe Stacey.

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