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Tuesday, 7 March, 2000, 22:27 GMT
Transcript: Trial and Error

This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's Trial and Error programme, broadcast on 7 March




Jane: Remembrance Sunday - in Glasgow people gather to honour those who gave their lives for their country.

Among the veterans there are two who claim that their service to their country isn't even recognised, let alone remembered.

Gerry Dudman was in the Royal Navy. He was eighteen when he was sent to the Chemical Weapons Research Centre at Porton Down.

Arnold Ward was in the Army. The promise of a week's leave encouraged him to volunteer for Porton Down. He too was eighteen.

Today, the two men are among hundreds who claim that their chronic health problems are linked to the trials they underwent at Porton Down. Many of them say they were lied to and mislead. Now they want to get at the truth and are campaigning for compensation. At the time they were told that their contribution was vital for the nation's security. But forty years on they feel rejected, not remembered.

The invitation looked innocent enough, and it was a break from tedious military routine. Thousands volunteered.

Porton Down, once so shrouded in secrecy that very few knew what went on within its fences. Even those who volunteered to come here were largely kept in the dark about what was being done to them.

Porton was established during the First World War for chemical weapons research, and it relied heavily on volunteers from the armed forces to become what has been described as human guinea pigs.

Some did it for a little extra cash. Some for extra leave. Others because they thought it was their duty. It was so secret that some didn't even tell their families they'd attended here.

But Porton has become the focus of attention recently because of a police investigation into the death nearly forty-seven years ago of a young serviceman, Ronald Maddison, who'd taken part in tests here.

Ronald Maddison was in the RAF. He was twenty when in February 1953 he died at Porton Down.

Scientists had been testing Sarin - one of the world's deadliest nerve gases - on him. The Court of Inquiry, kept secret at the time, found the cause of death was poisoning by nerve gas.

But police are investigating allegations that Maddison, and others, were tricked into going to Porton with assurances that they were doing research into the common cold.

It was Germany's devastating use of mustard gas in the trenches of the First World War which prompted Britain's research.

But the discovery of stockpiles of the far more deadly German nerve gas, left in Europe after the Second World War, pushed Porton Down into a race against time. By then the cold war had begun.

Gerry Dudman: Gerard Dudman, Royal Navy, DMX 900465, Porton Down, 1953.

Porton Down, we'd never heard of Porton Down, until we were inside the gate, locked inside the gate I should say.

Jane: But you were told that it was a naval station you were in.

Gerry: Yes, I was.

Jane: So you didn't volunteer?

Gerry: I didn't volunteer, no. They showed us what some of these gases, things could do. They dropped liquid on to the rabbits, rats and mice, and the result was that they ended up on their backs with four legs sticking up in the air. I was a bit shocked to say the least. They told us there'd be no danger to us by going through tests.

Jane: What sort of tests did they put you through, can you remember?

Gerry: Well, basically it was dropping gases, both mustard and nerve gas on each arm. They waited till the blister came up from your arms, or the red mark that showed it was going through into your skin. And then they put on the ointments.

Jane: In special chambers Gerry's lungs were also tested with gas.

Gerry: There was a group of us went in, and then the gas was released, and then you had to find your way out at the far end of the. . . and we just all forced ourselves out, all at once more or less.

Jane: What sort of effects did the gas have on you?

Gerry: Och, streaming eyes, and....we were coughing and spluttering when we got out.

Jane: But at least at some point you went into a chamber and gas was released without you wearing a mask, is that right?

Gerry: That's right

Arnold Ward: Private Arnold Ward, 14656579, Porton Down, 1943.

Jane: Did anybody tell you what the tests were?

Arnold: No just tests, that's all I remember.

Jane: You had no idea what it was you were being tested for?

Arnold: No, no idea at all. I was put into a billet. At some later stage I was then taken from the billet and put into a room, and when I came out of this room I was blind.

Jane: You couldn't see anything?

Arnold: I couldn't see anything.

Jane: Arnold's sight gradually returned. But he now has long-term health problems.

Arnold: Well, I now suffer from glaucoma, and cataracts. I also have epilepsy. I have a raised diaphragm, which causes me a great deal of disturbance in my breathing.

Jane: Gerry Dudman suffers from blackouts. For no reason, apparently, his nervous system collapses.

Gerry: Over the years I've had one or two roughly per year. But nobody's. . . . I've had brain scans and things like that. But nobody can pinpoint the reason.

Jane: There are many among the thousands of volunteers who wonder if their health problems can be pinpointed to the Porton Down tests. Over the last ten years they've started seeking legal advice.

Alan Care (Solicitor): I would say about 50 people have probably contacted us as a firm of solicitors. There are then about, I think, 450 who've approached the Porton Down Volunteers Association. Their illness that I attribute to their experiments can range from eye problems, heart, respiratory. But, if you like, the front runners for the most likely at this stage seem to be, for example, respiratory, eye, and perhaps depression.

Jane: A legal battle already engaged. But the medical battle could be even more difficult.

Dr Alastair Hay, Chemical Pathologist, University of Leeds: Many of the problems that the veterans have now could very well just be the effects of ageing. But they could be the effects of exposure to these chemical agents as well.

And without some kind of proper long-term investigation of the veterans I think it's very difficult to say whether the problems are related to the tests or not. We just don't know. Jane: In his quest for knowledge Gerry Dudman checked his service records.

Gerry: I decided to look up my naval documents to see where exactly when I was at Porton Down. And lo and behold there was no evidence of me ever having been to Porton Down.

Jane: So this was two, possibly three weeks in your life which apparently hadn't happened?

Gerry: That's correct.

Jane: Arnold Ward sought records. In his case it was medical records. So far, he's been on his paper trail for eight years.

Arnold: I have a file here. That's the sort of letters which I have written to all sorts of people - influential, and not so influential. And these are the replies which I have had. Not one of them has offered me the chance to see my Army medical records. They cannot be found.

Jane: They're lost?

Arnold: Well the term that they use is that 'they cannot be found'. So I'm assuming that they're lost.

Jane: Arnold Ward's lost medical records. Gerry Dudman's lost fortnight missing from his service records. And in this confusing paper trial there is yet another set of relevant records - those of the experiments themselves, which are kept in ageing battered files at Porton Down.

Those are the records Des Passingham is after, risking his health by making the three-hour journey from Basildon in Essex to Porton Down.

Des Passingham: Gunner Passingham D, 23354316, Porton Down, 1957.

Jane: Des had family reasons for volunteering.

Des: This person who appealed to me because of my father served in the First World War. He had mustard gas and so I had vivid memories as a young child of the problems he had developed.

Jane: Des was told he'd be testing protected clothing and equipment. He did at first. Later, though, liquid gas was put on his arm. And there was worse to come.

Des: I'd drops put in my eyes.

Jane: What kind of drops?

Des: Then again, no mention, no nothing. Just actually. . . .head back, eyes open, droplets. And then suddenly everything goes dark. And you think.. . . . .hello here. . . you know, I'm not seeing so well here. . . your daylight becomes dusk.

Jane: And did you say this to somebody who was there?

Des: No, because I had made inquiries on the first few things, and well I'm just wasting my time here, because I'm not silly, I'm nineteen, but I'm not silly. . . I know that they say 'jump', you jump, 'you shut your mouth, you don't ask me, I'll tell you.

So that's it. And then after that, obviously we. . . after all going through the same procedure, and then we met up back in the billet. "What's happened to your eyes, oh bloody hell", you know, "you've barely got any pupils," you know, "same with you". So what was put in there was anyone's guess.

Jane: Anyone's guess? This film was made five years before Des went to Porton Down.

Air Ministry Film: 'Nerve Gas': The man you see shows the eye effects of a mild dose of the gas. The first picture you'll see shows the effects five yours after exposure. There he is. Notice how small the pupils of his eyes become.

Jane: Almost immediately after his National Service Des realised something was wrong.

Des: I started getting panic attacks, getting rather upset. In fact, life was a little bit of a struggle.

Jane: How old were you then?

Des: I was just over 20, 20 and-a-half. Over the years if I couldn't cope with a situation the body used to shut down.

Jane: When he was just forty-nine it nearly shut down completely. Des had a major heart attack.

Des: My heart was a very aged heart. In fact they could give me no reason why my heart was in such a poor state.

Jane: The criminal investigation into Ronald Maddison's death puts restrictions on what Porton Down authorities will comment on. But the attendant publicity has focused attention on its past activities.

Paul Taylor, Director, Porton Down: We have set up a volunteers helpline where people can ring if they have any concern about their health as a result of attendance at trials at Porton Down.

Do they feel they have health problems as you're suggesting? Some of them do. They can ring the helpline number, we will arrange for them to come here and visit, they can look at the records that we have. We will also, through the wider Ministry of Defence get them in touch with their medical records which aren't generally kept here.

They can then find out what they were exposed to. We will tell them as much as we know, everything we know, and it isn't always complete what we tell and what we can't.

Jane: Frontline took up the offer. More than forty years after they were last year Gerry Dudman and Des Passingham returned with us to Porton Down.

Des: I think we all feel a bit apprehensive, don't we Gerry, coming back after all these years.

Jane: In what way apprehensive?

Des: Well we don't really know what to expect. We know what we had, but we don't know what to expect today, that's the main thing. But we hope to get a few answers.

Jane: According to Gerry's service records he was never here. He was here eight months after Ronald Maddison's death from nerve gas exposure. Porton Down have found Gerry's experiment records, records he's never seen.

Dr Hall: You came on 19 October 1953, and you departed again on 23 October 1953.

Gerry: To my recollection I was here for two or three weeks, it doesn't mention anything in my naval documents of me ever being here at all.

Dr Hall: Right.

Gerry: And everything else is noted in my naval documents.

Dr Hall: But presumably you remember coming.

Gerry: Oh I remember, yes, I remember coming, but I didn't know the actual dates. I looked up to see the dates and there was nothing, not a mention at all.

Dr Hall: Ah, that's a shame, that's a shame. And this is the sum total of what we've got that says what you were involved in. I don't know whether you can read that, it says 'H-Dutch powder', it's a bit cryptic isn't it?

But we've got some experts here that work out what that means. 'H' stands for mustard gas. I'll show you what the record book says. 179cm high.

Jane: Gerry, you went in to see Doctor Hall.

Gerry: I did, yes.

Jane: And, what's your immediate reaction to what you were told?

Gerry: Well, somebody has messed up the date I was actually here, because they do not add up to my remembering.

Jane: So Porton Down, according to Porton Down's records it was just three days you were here?

Gerry: Four days.

Jane: Four days.

Gerry: Four days now. But eh, I was definitely here for more than four days. They've confirmed that I went through mustard gas on two different occasions, but not nerve gas. Although they did admit that maybe their records were wrong.

Jane: They did say that, did they, that the records may not be complete?

Gerry: Yes.

Jane: Gerry's been told of one possibility that there was another military test centre two miles away. Perhaps he was sent there during his time at Porton. But the experiment records of that establishment weren't kept.

Meanwhile, the records Des Passingham has been curious about for years are finally open to him.

Dr Hall:. . . .section on P.. . .

Des: So it's all hand-written as they say.

Dr Hall: You were paid the grand sum of 18 shillings.

Des: Yes, now do we know how I accumulated this wealthy sum because we were only given money for tests undertaken. And the information you've given to me I've accumulated 18 shillings and you reckon you haven't done an awful lot to me. Now we were only paid per experiment.

Dr Hall: Maybe we owe you another few shillings.

Des: No, you've got the wrong end of the stick.

They denied knowledge that I went through procedures of nerve gases. It isn't in their record book. But they admit to me that their records are not 100 per cent.

Another thing that surprised me, it wasn't a medical team that wrote these diaries up, it could have been an NCO of the Military. And if he was a National Serviceman that made these records, he's here for the beer, he's got no qualifications.

Dr Hay: I think the fact that Porton says that its records are incomplete is nothing short of a disgrace. If volunteers are trying to find out about their current health problems and to see whether their problems are related in any way to what they were exposed to, they need to have access to good records.

And so, if Porton can't provide those the volunteers themselves are not going to know what they were exposed to, how much they were exposed to. And if the agency that was doing these tests can't keep decent records then I find it very difficult to see how the individuals can a) prove their case, or, perhaps more importantly, how Porton can deny that these people have a claim.

Jane: Impasse, apparently, in the UK. But in America and Australia servicemen also took part in chemical tests amidst the same official secrecy, the same lack of record keeping, and now suffer the same chronic health problems.

Their treatment though, has been very different. It's acknowledged that there could be a link between the tests and ill health, even if it can't be conclusively proved. And compensation payments are almost automatic.

As film of gas tests in Australia show, Britain wasn't alone in the race to develop protection against chemical weapons.

In the United States Rudy Mills was 17 when he took part in tests.

Rudolph Mills: Well we put the mask on, check it for tightness, and there we would just basically stand for an hour or something like that in there. Then we would sing through the intercom. I always had a good voice, so we would sing just to pass some time away.

But in doing the singing my mask would open up, here and here, and would burn me, and of course, I inhaled I guess more than I wanted to at that time. Again, I didn't know what was going on really for that part of it. So that happened for 12 times, we did that for 12, an hour per day.

Jane: The gas doses in America were much higher than at Porton Down and the immediate effects were obvious. But for Rudy and his colleagues the real damage was long-term.

Rudy: I had already lost my larynx, and of course I was talking the way I talk. I had lost my voice. I could no longer sing, which I enjoyed to do. Tiredness, fatigued real easy, breath. . . shortness of breath.

Jane: Rudy knew little of what he was testing, and he was told that secrecy was paramount.

Rudy: I didn't know it at the time. I didn't know it recently what this thing caused, . . . .whatever they are. I didn't know what it would do to your throat, or whatever it would do to your muscles. We were told it was secret and to keep it to ourselves. And so we did.

Jane: And they did for nearly 40 years. Indeed the fact that such tests had taken place at all was officially denied until a sympathetic Congressman took up the fight.

Congressman Porter Goss: We raised quite a bit of fuss with the Veterans Administration and said: "Look, we're not going to give up on this, you need to know that, and we'd like to at least know what the medical outcome is on this.

Could you do something like call the National Academy of Scientists to the Institute of Medicine and see what they think about these allegations that are made."

And eventually through a combination of pressures and forces that happened. And the Veterans Administration did go and we got a report back from the National Academy of Scientist, the Institute of Medicine, which was absolutely scathing about what the Government had done.

Jane: The research was the most comprehensive health study in US military history. 2,000 scientific papers and technical reports were reviewed.

Evidence was taken from 260 test veterans. It linked exposure to some gases and a series of health problems. The following year, 1994, the American government was forced to accept responsibility.

Dr Kenneth Shine, president, Institute of Medicine: Our country which has put them at risk was not taking responsibility. Finding some way that that a) they could be believed, that the truth would come out and that in fact their stories were the truth was extremely important to them.

And the second issue was: was the country going to treat them fairly as a consequence of those exposures? They were men who spent huge amounts of their own money being cared for through illnesses which they believed had been a result of those exposures.

To be finally told that there might be some sense to that and that the United States was willing to take responsibility was extremely important.

Jane: As well as commendations, as much an official apology as it is an acknowledgement, test veterans who suffer ill health receive compensation and free medical care.

Rudy: Well, I am on monetary benefit monthly, and I had benefits, which go to the medical centre in Richmond. They're watching all aspects of my body now, so to speak, and supplying me with medication.

Jane: Back in Britain though it is a battle through the courts rather than the corridors of political power that the issue, according to a leading QC, is the same. If the tests were done without the informed consent of the volunteers it was an abuse of human rights.

John Hendy QC: There was a code at the time in 1947, the Nuremberg Code, which was introduced after the experiments that the Nazis did on their prisoners, which regulates the way in which experiments may be done.

And it's been updated in more recent times, but it's still the guiding light for medical ethics. And to subject somebody to physical harm without informed consent is completely unacceptable. It's a violation of every fundamental human right. Absolutely.

Jane: For Gerry Dudman, legal action is a possibility. Frontline took him to meet Alan Care, who acts for the late Ronald Maddison's family, and who has succeeded in getting Legal Aid for another of his Porton Down clients. But there's a stumbling block - Section 10 - a law which protects government departments against legal action if the alleged injuries happened before 1987.

Alan Care: The idea of Section 10 is that they shouldn't have to go to court, they should in fact be granted compensation via, what is called, the 'Royal Warrant', and should be given pensions. But in fact no Porton Down volunteers ever received a pension despite applying.

Jane: So, let me get this straight: if anything was done to you before 1987, you can't claim compensation for it?

Alan Care: As the law stands that is the draconian position with the law. There have been a number of cases taken against, or challenges to Section 10, but they haven't been successful yet.

The difference for the Porton Down volunteers, I think, is this question of whether they have been subjected to deception, effectively, by a government department.

Jane: How are you going to show that whatever happened to them there is linked to their health problems when actually there is very little record of what did happen to them there?

Alan Care: I think the answer to that is you look abroad for the experience of other nations when dealing with this particular problem of volunteers who take part in human experiments.

For example, in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, this position is not unique, and basically what those countries have done is to effectively face up to that responsibility, in a moral way as well as a legal way, and to compensate those individuals. It's only Britain that seems to stand alone in failing to provide them with any compensation, and effectively just sweep them under the carpet as if they didn't exist.

Jane: In opposition the Labour Party actively campaigned on behalf of the Porton Down volunteers saying they deserved, at the very least, independent medical assessment.

Their statement in 1995 went on to say other governments are beginning to acknowledge that their testing programmes may have put the health of personnel at risk. It is time the British Government did the same.

Five years on, Labour are the British Government. So we wanted to ask the Minister of Defence if they were reneging on that pledge, and if so, why.

The Minister refused to be interviewed. And the Department wouldn't be drawn into a detailed response to our inquiries. The Porton Down tests, according to their written statement, were designed in accordance with best practice of the day.

For the service personnel who went to Porton official silence is what they've become used to. As far as they're concerned best practice of the day isn't good enough today.

Do you feel let down?

Gerry: Yes, I feel let down I was sent there in the first place.

Arnold: The likes of myself, I'd went to Porton Down and I'm still suffering from the effects of Porton Down. That makes me very, very sad that they're not prepared to do anything about it.

Des: We were human guinea pigs and we were being played with. Whether it was done professionally, or not professionally, I'm not educated enough to know.

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