The Value (and disvalue) of Conducting Secret Science: A Review of the Book

In my field there are certain locations that are spoken of in the same tone one might spike of Camelot. Fort Detrick, the CDC, Plum Island, and the NIH are some US-based locations that have reached this rarified air. In England, Porton Down has that status. 

This military establishment in the English countryside is the site in which much of the British work on biological and chemical weapons -- offensive and defensive -- took place for decades. A recent book I read, Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments by University of Kent professor Ulf Schmidt, is a notable history of the famous (or infamous depending on your context) installation that I strongly recommend.

Professor Schmidt's primary purpose in this book is to explore the medical ethics and biosafety procedures at Porton Down in an attempt to understand how they evolved over time as the field of bioethics emerged from the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki. To that end, Professor Schmidt meticulously catalogs internal deliberations that occurred on informed consent, risk-benefit analysis, public disclosure requirements, and reactions to the death of a volunteer serviceman in a sarin exposure experiment.

The fascinating insight into how military science is similar and dissimilar to civilian science is one of the biggest values of the book and would be a useful guide for those engaged with these same issues in the modern era. However, as an infectious disease physician exquisitely interested in thinking around biological weapons the book provides a unique glimpse of how, before the Biological Weapons Convention, nation-states evaluated biological weapons and where they were placed in the armamentarium.

Some fascinating facts I learned included the unfortunate excursion of the trawler Carella into a cloud of plague during Operation Cauldron, the horrific and vividly described effects of the chemical incapacitant BZ, the "doubtful predictability" of biological weapons, and many other important anecdotes.

Reading the book with all its details, I was tempted to forget Professor Schmidt's goals of highlighting how volunteer soldiers were experimental test subjects  who were placed at risk of death and disability without proper consent being obtained--a fact that cannot be ignored--in the name of "national security".

I (and presumably Professor Schmidt) do not believe that national security can ever be used as an excuse to abrogate individual rights for they are the very reasons governments are instituted.