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Porton Down

Porton Down is a UK government and military science park. It is situated slightly North-East of Porton near Salisbury in Wiltshire, England. To the North-West lies the MoD Boscombe Down test range facility which is owned by QinetiQ. On maps, Porton Down has a "Danger Area" surrounding the entire complex.[1]

It is home to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, known as 'Dstl, Porton Down'. Dstl is an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the site is believed to be one of the United Kingdom's most sensitive and secretive government facilities for military research, including CBRN defence. The Dstl site occupies 7,000 acres (28 km²). [2]

It is also home to the Health Protection Agency's Emergency Preparedness and Response Centre as well as a small science park which includes companies such as Tetricus Bioscience [3] and Ploughshare Innovations [4]

The site is commonly confused with the UK's nearby CBRN training facility, the Defence CBRN Centre at Winterbourne Gunner.



Porton Down was set up to provide a proper scientific basis for the British use of chemical warfare, in response to the earlier German use of this means of war in 1915. Work at Porton started in March 1916. At the time, only a few cottages and farm buildings were scattered on the Downs at Porton and Idmiston.


  Porton Down originally opened in 1916 as the Royal Engineers Experimental Station as a site for testing chemical weapons. The laboratory's remit was to conduct research and development regarding chemical weapons agents such as chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas by the British armed forces in the First World War.

By 1918 the original two huts had become a large hutted camp with 50 officers and 1,100 other ranks. Studies in the Great War mainly concerned the dissemination of chlorine and phosgene and, later, mustard gas. By May 1917 the focus for anti-gas defence and respirator development had moved from London to Porton Down.

After the Armistice, staff at Porton Down were reduced to a skeleton level.

Post WW1

In 1919 the War Office set up the Holland Committee to consider the future of chemical warfare and defence. By 1920, the Cabinet agreed to the Committee’s recommendation that work should continue at Porton Down and from that date a slow permanent building programme began coupled with the gradual recruitment of civilian scientists. By 1922, there were 380 servicemen, 23 scientific and technical civil servants and 25 “civilian subordinates”. By 1925 the civilian staff had doubled.

By 1926 the chemical defence aspects of Air Raid Precautions (ARP) for the civilian population was added to the Station’s responsibilities. By 1938, the international situation was such that offensive chemical warfare research and development and the production of war reserve stocks of chemical warfare agents by the chemical industry was authorised by the Cabinet. Britain had ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol in 1930 with reservations which permitted the use of chemical warfare agents only in retaliation.

The Common Cold Unit (CCU) is sometimes confused with the Health Protection Agency at nearby Porton Down, with which it occasionally collaborated but was not officially connected. The CCU is located at Harvard Hospital, Harnham Down, on the west side of Salisbury.

Chemical warfare was not used by any nation during the Second World War but as Allied armies penetrated Germany, operational stockpiles of munitions and weapons were discovered which contained new chemical warfare agents; the highly toxic organophosphorous nerve agents, unknown to Britain and the Allies.

Second World War

During the Second World War, research concentrated on chemical weapons such as nitrogen mustard, plus biological weapons including Anthrax and Botulinum toxin. In 1942, highly successful tests of an anthrax bio-weapon developed at Porton Down were held at Gruinard Island.

Post war period

When WW2 ended, the advanced state of German technology regarding nerve agents such as Tabun, Sarin and Soman surprised the allies and they were eager to capitalise on it. Subsequent research took the newly discovered German nerve agents as a starting point, and eventually VX nerve agent was developed at Porton Down in 1952.

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw research and development at Porton Down aimed at providing Britain with the means to arm itself with a modern nerve agent based capability and to develop specific means of defence against these agents. In the end these aims came to nothing on the offensive side because of the decision to abandon any sort of British chemical warfare capability. On the defensive side there were years of difficult work to develop the means of prophylaxis, therapy, rapid detection and identification, decontamination and more effective protection of the body against nerve agents, capable of exerting effects through the skin, the eyes and respiratory tract.

Tests were carried out on servicemen to determine the effects of nerve agents on human subjects, with one recorded death due to a nerve gas experiment. There have been persistent allegations of unethical human experimentation at Porton Down, such as those relating to the death of Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison, aged 20, in 1953. Maddison was taking part in sarin nerve agent toxicity tests. Sarin was dripped on to his arm and he died shortly afterwards as a result.

In the 1950s the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment became involved with the development of CS, a riot control agent, and took an increasing role in trauma and wound ballistics work. Both these facets of Porton Down’s work had become more important because of the situation in Northern Ireland.

In 1970 the Chemical Defence Establishment became the title of the senior establishment at Porton Down and remained for the next 21 years. Preoccupation with defence against the nerve agents continued but in the 1970s and 1980s the Establishment was also concerned with studying reported chemical warfare by Iraq against Iran and against its own Kurdish population.

Until 2001 the military installation of Porton Down was part of the UK government's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. DERA was spilt into QinetiQ, initially a fully government owned company, and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). Dstl incorporates all of DERA's activities deemed unsuitable for the privatisation planned for QinetiQ, particularly Porton Down.

Support of British Forces in the Gulf

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the problems increased, culminating in active operational support of British Forces in the Gulf region. After the Gulf ceasefire the establishment continued to provide technical support for the United Nations Special Commission set-up to oversee the destruction of the Iraqi capability to use nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. This continued until 1999 when Iraq withdrew co-operation from the Commission.[citation needed]


The military facility has used human test subjects in the testing of Sarin of which a case settlement has been made [5] and the use, again on test subjects, of Nerve Gas. [6]

Mysterious Deaths of Scientists

  • On November 1 2001, Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik—a world-class microbiologist & high-profile Russian defector who defected to the United Kingdom in 1989—died. He played a huge role in Russian biowarfare and helped to figure out how to modify cruise missiles to deliver the agents of mass biological destruction. He founded the Regma Biotechnologies company in Britain, a laboratory at Porton Down, the country's chem-bio warfare defence establishment. Regma currently has a contract with the U.S. Navy for "the diagnostic and therapeutic treatment of anthrax". He died under mysterious circumstances: The pathologist who did the autopsy, and who also happened to be associated with Britain's spy agency, concluded he died of a stroke. Details of the postmortem were not revealed at an inquest, in which the press was given no prior notice. Colleagues who had worked with Pasechnik said he had been in good health. [7]
  • On July 17 2003, Dr. David Christopher Kelly, an employee of the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence (MoD), an expert in biological warfare, and a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, died. Kelly's discussion with Today programme journalist Andrew Gilligan about the British government's dossier on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq inadvertently caused a major political scandal. He was found dead days after appearing before a Parliamentary committee, to whose investigation the scandal was subject. His experience with biological weapons at Porton Down led to his selection as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq following the end of the Gulf War.


Most of the work carried out at Porton Down has to date remained secret, and the UK Government have been criticised for not revealing the true extent of the research that was carried out on servicemen. It is known that amongst current research at Porton is the study of MRSA and Anthrax. The facility produces a high efficacy anthrax vaccine which is sold throughout the world. However, certain elements of the government have admitted that they are not fully aware of everything that goes on at Porton Down.

Bruce George, Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee (defence select committee ), told BBC News on August 20 1999 that:

"I would not say that the Defence Committee is micro-managing either DERA or Porton Down. We visit it, but, with 11 members of Parliament and 5 staff covering a labyrinth iron department like the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces, it would be quite erroneous of me and misleading for me to say that we know everything that’s going on in Porton Down. A) It’s too big for us to know, and secondly, there are many things happening there that I’m not even certain Ministers are fully aware of, let alone Parliamentarians." [8]

Sir Thomas Dalyell was outspoken in Parliament and true to his own views. His stance ensured his isolation from significant committees and jobs. His early career was promising and he became Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Richard Crossman. But he annoyed a number of ministers and was heavily censured by the privileges committee for a leak about the biological weapons research establishment Porton Down[citation needed] to the newspapers (though he claimed that he thought the minutes were in the public domain).

Deaths attributed to Porton Down

Dstl Porton Down has also been involved in human-testing.

A second inquest on Ronald Maddison commenced in May 2004, after many years of lobbying by his relatives and their supporters. It later found the death of Ronald Maddison to have been unlawful [9]; however this has since been challenged by the Ministry of Defence. [10]

In February 2006 three ex-servicemen were awarded compensation in an out of court settlement after claims they were given LSD without their consent during the 1950s. [11]

Use of Animals

Dstl Porton Down is also involved in animal-testing, where the "three Rs" of Reduce (the number of animals used), Refine (animal procedures) and Replace (animal tests with non-animal tests) are used as the basic code of practice. Nevertheless, there has been a significant increase in animal experimentation in recent years.

In 2003 it is speculated that Cambridge University will move its primate laboratory to Porton Down. [12]

During 2005, 21,118 procedures were undertaken which involved the use of animals [13], nearly double the number undertaken in 1997 [14]. In 2005, approximately 95% of the animals used (20,016) were mice. Other animals used included guinea pigs, rats, pigs, ferrets, sheep, and non-human primates (believed to be marmosets, rhesus monkeys and macaques). The figures released in 2005 also reveal that one cow was used in a secret experiment in 2004 [15].

Different departments at Porton Down use animal experiments in different ways. Dstl’s Biomedical Sciences department is involved with drug evaluation and efficacy testing (toxicology, pharmacology, physiology, behavioural science, human science), trauma and surgery studies, and animal breeding. The Physical Sciences department also uses animals in its ‘Armour Physics’ research.

Like other aspects of research at Porton Down, precise details of animal experiments are generally kept secret. However, media reports have suggested they include exposing monkeys to anthrax, draining the blood of pigs and injecting them with E. coli bacteria, and exposing animals to a variety of lethal, toxic nerve agents [1]. Different animals are used for very different purposes. According to a 2002 report from the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Defence, mice are used mainly to research "the development of vaccines and treatments for microbial and viral infections", while pigs are used to "develop personal protective equipment to protect against blast injury to the thorax" [2].

Porton Down in popular culture

  • In 1962 Alister Maclean [3] published his novel "The Satan Bug", about someone removing nerve agents from a Chemical Warfare Establishment called Morton (Based on Porton Down), and using them to blackmail the country.
  • Victor Canning's 1976 novel "The Doomsday Carrier" [html://] is set in Fadledean Research Station near Salisbury, clearly a fictional Porton Down. In it a chimpanzee escapes after being injected with a plague bacillus and is hunted across the country.
  • In 1979 Peter Hammill recording an album entitled pH7 which featured the song 'Porton Down' (lyrics) which referred to the Porton Down military research facility in Wiltshire, England.
  • In 1980 the band Tricks Upon Travellers released the song 'Porton Down' [4]
  • In 1980, it is believed that personnel from Porton Down visited Rendlesham Forest after the Rendlesham Forest Incident. [5], [6], [7] - You Can't Tell the People.
  • In 1996, British researcher Tony Dodd surfaced with a story about alien bodies supposedly taken to Porton Down from the site of an alleged UFO crash on the Berwyn Mountains in North Wales most commonly referred to as the Berwyn Mountain Incident. [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]
  • In 1999 Nick Pope, a UK Government MOD employee, published a book, 'Operation Thunder Child', talking about alien bodies (EBE's), being taken to Porton Down [13]
  • In 2000 Nick Pope, a UK Government MOD employee, published a book, 'Operation Lightning Strike', talking about alien bodies (EBE's), being taken to Porton Down [14]
  • Grimbledon Down was a comic strip by British cartoonist Bill Tidy, published for many years by New Scientist. The strip was set in an ostensibly fictitious U.K. government research lab, which was in fact a thinly veiled reference to the controversial Porton Down bio-chemical research facility.


  • “Porton Down: a brief history” by G B Carter, Porton Down’s official historian. [16]
  • “Chemical and Biological Defence at Porton Down 1916-2000” (The Stationery Office, 2000). by G B Carter


  1. ^ For further details of these please see Ordnance Survey map number '184' of the 'Landranger' series of maps. A smaller view of this is available online at Online Ordnance Survey small map
  2. ^ BBC News "Porton Down - a sinister air?"
  3. ^ Tetricus
  4. ^
  5. ^ BBC News "MoD agrees sarin case settlement"
  6. ^ BBC News " Nerve gas death was 'unlawful'"
  7. ^ His Telegraph obituary
  8. ^ BBC News "Chemical base 'too big', says MP"
  9. ^ BBC News " Nerve gas death was 'unlawful'"
  10. ^ BBC News "MoD 'can challenge Porton case'"
  11. ^ BBC News "MI6 payouts over secret LSD tests"
  12. ^ BBC News, "Doubt remains over primate lab"
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ “Porton Down: a brief history” by G B Carter, Porton Down’s official historian.

See also

  • Boscombe Down
  • RAF Rudloe Manor
  • The United Kingdom and weapons of mass destruction
  • Service Volunteer Programme
  • Lancelot Ware
  • Nancekuke


  • University of Kent Porton Down Project
  • Wiltshire police Operation Antler information
  • BBC News report, November 2002: Nerve gas inquest to be re-opened
  • Porton Down Veterans' Support Group
  • Letter from the Department of Health to Health Authorities regarding the Porton Down volunteers
  • BBC News, MI6 payouts over secret LSD tests
  • EyeSpy mag article on Porton Down
  • BBC News - MoD pays out over nerve gas death
  • Gaddum Papers at the Royal Society
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Porton_Down". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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