Obituary: David Kelly ; Model Weapons Inspector in Russia and Then in Iraq

By Taylor, Terence | The Independent (London, England), July 31, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: David Kelly ; Model Weapons Inspector in Russia and Then in Iraq

Taylor, Terence, The Independent (London, England)

DAVID KELLY was a scientific civil servant of the highest calibre who became the UK's leading authority in the effort to prevent the development and proliferation of biological weapons around the world.

He had been my friend and professional colleague for over 16 years up to his untimely death. As someone who was involved in the policy aspects of the scientific and technological issues related to biological weapons programmes, I looked to him as my mentor. His lucid and objective explanations of complex matters in relation to this subject were invaluable.

Born in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales in the penultimate year of the Second World War, the son of a schoolteacher, Kelly was educated at the County Grammar School for Boys, Pontypridd, and had degrees in bacteriology (BSc, Leeds) and virology (MSc, Birmingham) and iridoviruses (DPhil, Oxford). He carried out research work at Warwick and Oxford universities - taking his doctorate at Linacre College in 1973 with the thesis "The Replication of Some Iridescent Viruses in Cell Cultures" - and was for a spell a Chief Scientific Officer at the Natural Environment Research Council working in the agricultural sphere, principally on insect viruses.

He came to defence and international security issues in mid- career when, in 1984, at the age of 40, he joined the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire. There he was appointed Director of the Microbiology Division, working on research into defensive measures against biological weapons. This is where I met him for the first time and found someone who was clearly enjoying his work in an environment where his inquisitive and meticulous approach was much needed and appreciated.

One of his early tasks was to oversee his department's work in the successful decontamination of Gruinard Island in Scotland, where the UK had conducted tests with anthrax as a possible weapon during the Second World War. The contaminated island, just off the coast of Wester Ross not far from Ullapool, was a legacy of a weapons programme abandoned soon after the end of the war.

The biological defence work at Porton Down was expanded and energised by Kelly's leadership, scientific competence and dedicated enthusiasm. As a result of his work, according to Graham Pearson, Director- General of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment during most of Kelly's tenure, "the UK was able to deploy a limited biological defence capability at the time of the 1991 Gulf War" and there was a longer-term legacy in that, thanks to his efforts, "Porton Down today has world-class facilities" for work on defence against biological attack.

Two near-simultaneous developments were to bring to even greater prominence Kelly's scientific and analytical talents. These were, first, the startling revelations about the existence of a clandestine biological weapons programme in the former Soviet Union and, second, the search for Iraq's nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programmes in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.

With regard to the former, Kelly made an immense contribution in the scientific understanding of information passed to the UK and US governments by defectors. This required a great deal of UK and US co- operation and delicate negotiations on very sensitive matters between senior officials from the policy and intelligence worlds. Here, as a Ministry of Defence official involved in the policy aspects of this issue, I was able to witness and benefit from David Kelly's astute understanding of international and inter- departmental interactions at the interface between science, technology and high-level policy matters.

The former Soviet Union, with the UK and the US, subscribed to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (a ban on the research, development and possession of these weapons), which made the revelations of this hidden programme of one of the three "guardians" of the treaty all the more egregious.

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Obituary: David Kelly ; Model Weapons Inspector in Russia and Then in Iraq


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