Book Review — Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Secret Science by Ulf Schmidt

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments by Ulf Schmidt is a comprehensive look at chemical and biological warfare in the United Kingdom. Schmidt is Professor of Modern History, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent, and principle investigator of the Porton Down Project on the history of chemical warfare research during the Cold War.

The use of poison gas on an industrial scale began with the first industrial scale war, WWI. The use of gas was not an easy decision for most. The idea of exterminating soldiers like rats did not sit well with the military or the public. There was still a sense of honor when it came to war. Some in the scientific community exploited the idea of a quick and painless death rather dying from bullet wounds, shrapnel, and infection.

The beginnings of chemical warfare were problematic with relying on the wind to disperse the poison. The Hague Convention of 1899 also limited the use of gas projectiles — “The Contracting Powers agree to abstain from the use of projectiles the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gasses.” After the first use by the Germans, the Entente Powers were hesitant to retaliate in kind. The British did circumvent the Hague Convention with the Livens Projector that launched gas canisters at the enemy. The arguable point was a canister was not intended to be a projectile — artillery shell.

There is a detailed discussion of Porton Down, the British chemical research center. The discussion is more than the actual work down in the center, but of the ethics involved in human testing. Volunteers were misled or lied to about what was actually being tested. The great majority of the book is directed at the ethics of human testing rather than the actual use of the weapons in war.

In the United States, chemical weapon development was lead the Bureau of Mines contracting civilian companies to produce poison gas. The US Chemical Service eventually became the US Army Chemical Corps after WWII. The Chemical Service separated itself from biological weapons while the British Porton Down did not. A quick search of Anthrax Island will bring up Gruinard Island. This Scottish Island was used to test anthrax dispersion in 1942. The island remained uninhabitable and contaminated until the 1986 decontamination. Gruinard Island was finally declared inhabitable in 1990. This is a lasting testament to the effects of biological weapons.

Schmidt writes an interesting study of the development and ethics of chemical warfare without spending much time on the battlefield use of the weapons. There is much more to manufacturing poison gas than production and military use. The testing and government cover-ups through the 20th century show the lengths that nations, particularly Britain, would take in creating effective poison or incapacitating gasses. Although the US is mentioned in the book there is little mention on other countries with active programs like the USSR and China. Schmidt concentrates his effort on Porton Downs and gives a detailed history. Very well done.

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