Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Synopsis

From the early 1990s, allegations that servicemen had been duped into taking part in trials with toxic agents at top-secret Allied research facilities throughout the twentieth century featured with ever greater frequency in the media. In Britain, a whole army of over 21,000 soldiers had participated in secret experiments between 1939 and 1989. Some remembered their stay as harmless, but there were many for whom the experience had been all but pleasant, sometimes harmful, and in isolated cases deadly. Secret Science traces, for the first time, the history of chemical and biological weapons research by the former Allied powers, particularly in Britain, the United States, and Canada. It charts the ethical trajectory and culture of military science, from its initial development in response to Germany's first use of chemical weapons in the First World War to the ongoing attempts by the international community to ban these types of weapons once and for all. It asks whether Allied and especially British warfare trials were ethical, safe, and justified within the prevailing conditions and values of the time. By doing so, it helps to explain the complex dynamics in top-secret Allied research establishments: the desire and ability of the chemical and biological warfare corps, largely comprised of military officials, scientists, and expert civil servants, to construct and identify a never-ending stream of national security threats which served as flexible justification strategies for the allocation of enormous resources to conducting experimental research with some of the most deadly agents known to man. Secret Science offers a nuanced, non-judgmental analysis of the contributions made by servicemen, scientists, and civil servants to military research in Britain and elsewhere, not as passive, helpless victims 'without voices', or as laboratory and desk perpetrators 'without a conscience', but as history's actors and agents of their own destiny. As such it also makes an important contribution to the burgeoning literature on the history and culture of memory.

Excerpt

Towards the end of this project, I was privileged to be given time off to spend in an old nineteenth-century villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, a place as surreal in luminosity and ambience as its mountainous surroundings. I was the temporary occupant of a room with a view, sleepless, image-drunk, unable to grasp the enormous beauty of my immediate environment, where the rhythm of daily existence slowed down to create space for reflection. I was surrounded by experts from the fields of medicine, law, and ethics in a place where it seemed natural to share experiences over a glass of wine with colleagues. One of these told me a story he had heard about an accomplished young scholar from northern Europe. It was hardly credible, but it struck a particular chord with my own work, not so much as matter of verifiable historical fact, but because of its powerful iconic meaning about the status of medical science in our time. She was a leading expert in the philosophy and ethics of medical jurisprudence, and her specialist field, I was told, was human subject protection in Anglo-Saxon law. She tackled complicated questions such as informed consent and the dividing lines between different types of criminal law, and had a personality that combined highly complex, yet well considered, thought-processes with a certain childishness. At the request of a group of physicist colleagues, she had apparently agreed to subject herself to a human experiment to study the image resolution of various artificially induced brain activities during an MRI scan. It might well be claustrophobic, the scientists had apparently told her, perhaps even a little traumatic, given the confines of the machine, but it was perfectly safe. She had been told that, to ensure her brain activity could be artificially modified during the scanning process, and thus made visible, she would be breathing carbon monoxide through a gas mask. I had just spent . . .

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