Porton Down is a science park, situated just northeast of the village of Porton, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, England. It is home to two British government facilities: a site of the Ministry of Defence's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) – known for over 100 years as one of the UK's most secretive and controversial military research facilities, occupying 7,000 acres (2,800 ha) – and a site of Public Health England. It is also home to other private and commercial science organisations, and is expanding to attract other companies.
Entrance to secure facilities at Porton Down
|Location||Northeast of the village of Porton near Salisbury, in Wiltshire, England|
|Opening date||March 1916|
|Size||7,000 acres (2,800 ha)|
Porton Down is situated just northeast of the village of Porton near Salisbury, in Wiltshire, England. To the northwest lies the MoD Boscombe Down airfield operated by QinetiQ. On some maps, the land surrounding the complex is identified as a "Danger Area".
Porton Down opened in 1916 as the War Department Experimental Station, shortly renamed to the Royal Engineers Experimental Station, for testing chemical weapons in response to German use of this means of war in 1915. The laboratory's remit was to conduct research and development regarding chemical weapons agents used by the British armed forces in the First World War, such as chlorine, mustard gas, and phosgene.
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. By May 1917, the focus for anti-gas defence and respirator development had moved from London to Porton Down, and by 1918, the original two huts had become a large hutted camp with 50 officers and 1,100 other ranks. After the Armistice in 1918, Porton Down was reduced to a skeleton staff.
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. 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. In 1929 the Royal Engineers Experimental Station became the Chemical Warfare Experimental Station (CWES) (1929–1930), and in 1930 the Chemical Defence Experimental Station (CDES) (1930–1948). In 1930 Britain ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol with reservations, which permitted the use of chemical warfare agents only in retaliation. By 1938, the international situation was such that the Cabinet authorised offensive chemical warfare research and development and the production of war reserve stocks of chemical warfare agents by the chemical industry.
During the Second World War, research at CDES concentrated on chemical weapons such as nitrogen mustard. As Allied armies penetrated Germany, they discovered operational stockpiles of munitions and weapons that contained new chemical warfare agents, including highly toxic organophosphorous nerve agents such as sarin, unknown to Britain and the Allies at the time.
To examine biological weapons, a highly secret separate department, called the Biology Department, Porton (BDP), was established within CDES in 1940, under veteran microbiologist Paul Fildes. Its focus included anthrax and botulinum toxin, and in 1942 it famously carried out tests of an anthrax bio-weapon at Gruinard Island. In 1946, it was renamed the Microbiological Research Department (MRD) and, in 1957, the Microbiological Research Establishment (MRE).
The Common Cold Unit (CCU) was sometimes confused with the MRE, with which it occasionally collaborated but was not officially connected. The CCU was located at Harvard Hospital, Harnham Down, on the west side of Salisbury.
When the Second World War ended, the advanced state of German technology regarding the organophosphorous nerve agents, such as tabun, sarin and soman, had surprised the Allies, who 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.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, research and development at Porton Down was 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 in favour of nuclear weapons. 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 onto his arm and he died shortly afterwards.
In the 1950s, the station, now renamed the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment (CDEE), 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 unrest and increasing violence in Northern Ireland.
On 1 August 1962, Geoffrey Bacon, a scientist at the Microbiological Research Establishment, died from an accidental infection of the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis. In the same month an autoclave exploded, shattering two windows. Both incidents generated considerable media coverage at the time.
In 1970, the senior establishment at Porton Down was renamed the Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE) for the next 21 years. Preoccupation with defence against 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.
Porton Down was the laboratory where initial samples of the Ebola virus were sent in 1976 during the first confirmed outbreak of the disease in Africa. The laboratory now contains samples of some of the world's most aggressive pathogens, including Ebola, anthrax and the plague, and is leading the UK's current research into viral inoculations.
Until 2001 the military installation of Porton Down was part of the UK government's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) when it was split 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.
In 2013 Dstl scientists tested samples from Syria for Sarin, which is still manufactured there, to test soldiers' equipment.
Public Health England have planned since September 2015 to transfer their Porton Down staff to Harlow, and in July 2017 it had bought a vacant site from GSK (GlaxoSmithKline), aiming to consolidate operations there in 2024
The location's government use has been split into two separately controlled locations since 1979: the original military establishment under the Ministry of Defence, and the site to the south under the Department of Health, which had been opened in 1951 for the Microbiological Research Establishment, then in 1979 transferred to the Ministry of Health to focus on public health research, with the Defence aspects returning to the then-titled Chemical Defence Establishment.
|Date||Ministry of Defence (and predecessors)||Department of Health|
|1916||War Department Experimental Station|
|1916-29||Royal Engineers Experimental Station|
|1929-30||Chemical Warfare Experimental Station (CWES)|
|1930-48||Chemical Defence Experimental Station (CDES)|
|1940-46||Biology Department Porton (BDP)|
|1946-48||Microbiological Research Department (MRD)|
|1948-57||Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment (CDEE)|
|1957-70||Microbiological Research Establishment (MRE)|
|1970-79||Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE)|
|1979-91||Centre for Applied Microbiology & Research (CAMR)|
|1991-95||Chemical & Biological Defence Establishment (CBDE)|
|1995-2001||Chemical & Biological Defence Sector of DERA (CBD)|
|2001-04||(one site of) Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl)|
|2004-13||(one site of) Health Protection Agency|
|2013-present||(one site of) Public Health England (PHE)|
A factory in Sutton Oak, St Helens was requisitioned in 1917 by the War Department, renamed HM Factory, Sutton Oak and started producing the chemical warfare agent diphenyl chloroarsine. The site switched to producing Adamsite in 1922. In 1923 the War Office halted the requisition and purchased the site, renaming it the War Office Research Establishment, a.k.a. Chemical Warfare Research Establishment, and later the Chemical Defence Research Establishment Sutton Oak. During the 1920s, the site switched to producing mustard gas products, starting with the HS variant and adding the HT variant in the 1930s, and also filling armaments. After WW2, the site also produced the nerve agent sarin for experimental purposes. The site closed in 1957, with much of the work transferring to Chemical Defence Establishment Nancekuke.
This Royal Air Force site, built in 1940, was renamed Chemical Defence Establishment Nancekuke in July 1949. Manufacture of sarin in a pilot production facility commenced there in the early 1950s, producing about 20 tons from 1954 until 1956. It was intended as a stockpile and production facility for the UK's chemical defences during the Cold War, focussed on nerve agents, including small amounts of VX intended mainly for laboratory test purposes and to validate plant designs and optimise chemical processes for potential mass-production; full-scale production of VX agent never took place. In the late 1950s, the chemical weapons production plant was mothballed, but was maintained through the 1960s and 1970s in a state whereby production could easily re-commence if required.
A few small scientific start-ups were allowed to use buildings on the Porton Down campus from the mid-1990s. Porton Down has been housing companies on Tetricus Science Park, including Ploughshare Innovations since 2005, and GW Pharmaceuticals. As of 2014, an expansion plan was predicted to create 2,000 jobs. Expansion started in 2016, with £9.5m in funding from Wiltshire Council, the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership and the European Regional Development Fund.
In 1942, Gruinard Island was dangerously contaminated with anthrax after a cloud of anthrax spores was released over the island during a trial. In 1981, a team of activists landed on the island and collected soil samples, a bag of which was left at the door at Porton Down. Testing showed that it still contained anthrax spores and in 1986 the Government felt obliged to take the necessary steps to successfully decontaminate the island.
Between 1963 and 1975 the MRE carried out trials in Lyme Bay in which live bacteria were sprayed from a ship to be carried ashore by the wind to simulate an anthrax attack. The bacteria sprayed were the less dangerous Bacillus globigii and Escherichia coli, but it was later admitted that the bacteria could adversely affect some vulnerable people. The town of Weymouth lay downwind of the spraying. When the trials became public knowledge in the late 1990s, Dorset County Council, Weymouth and Portland Borough Council and Purbeck District Council demanded a Public Inquiry to investigate the experiments. The Government refused a Public Inquiry but instead commissioned Professor Brian Spratt, to conduct an Independent Review of the possible adverse health effects. He concluded that individuals with certain chronic conditions may have been affected.
Porton Down has been involved in human testing at various points throughout the Ministry of Defence's use of the site. Up to 20,000 people took part in various trials from 1949 up to 1989:
From 1999 until 2006, it was investigated under Operation Antler. In 2002 a first inquest and in May 2004, a second inquest into the death of Ronald Maddison during testing of the nerve agent sarin commenced after his relatives and their supporters had lobbied for many years, which found his death to have been unlawful. The Ministry of Defence challenged the verdict which was upheld and the government settled the case in 2006. In 2006, 500 veterans claimed they suffered from the experiments.
In February 2006, three ex-servicemen were awarded compensation in an out-of-court settlement after they had claimed they were given LSD without their consent during the 1950s. In 2008, the MoD paid 360 veterans of the tests £3m without admitting liability.
I would not say that the Defence Committee is micro-managing either DERA or Porton Down. We visit it, but, with eleven members of Parliament and five staff covering a labyrinthine 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. 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.
The biotechnology company GW Pharmaceuticals, which researches and develops cannabinoid formulations as potential therapeutics, has a facility at the Tetricus Science Park on the Porton Down site. Most of the cannabis plants used by GW Pharmaceuticals are cultivated by British Sugar at their site in Norfolk. Dstl state that "Dstl and its predecessors do not and have never grown cannabis at Porton Down."
Dstl's Porton Down site conducts animal testing. 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. There has been a decrease in animal experimentation in recent years. Dstl complies with all UK legislation relating to animals. Animals used include mice, guinea pigs, rats, pigs, ferrets, sheep, and non-human primates (believed to be marmosets and rhesus macaque). Publicly released figures are detailed below:
|Animals used at Porton Down by DERA (1997–2001) / Dstl (2001–2015)|
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. 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. 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".
CR gas or dibenzoxazepine (also referred to as DBO), or its chemical name dibenz[b,f][1,4]oxazepine, is an incapacitating agent and a lachrymatory agent. CR was developed by the British Ministry of Defence as a riot control agent in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A report from the Porton Down laboratories described exposure as "like being thrown blindfolded into a bed of stinging nettles", and it earned the nickname "firegas".Common Cold Unit
Thirty volunteers were required every fortnight during trial periods. The unit advertised in newspapers and magazines for volunteers, who were paid a small amount. A stay at the unit was presented in these advertisements as an unusual holiday opportunity. The volunteers were infected with preparations of cold viruses and typically stayed for ten days. They were housed in small groups of two or three, with each group strictly isolated from the others during the course of the stay. Volunteers were allowed to go out for walks in the countryside south of Salisbury, but residential areas were out of bounds.
Human coronaviruses, which are responsible for about 10% of common colds, were first isolated from volunteers at the unit in 1965. The CCU continually recruited volunteers for research into the common cold until its closure in 1989.
The CCU was sometimes confused with the Microbiological Research Establishment at nearby Porton Down, with which it occasionally collaborated but was not officially connected.David Willis Wilson Henderson
David Willis Wilson Henderson CB FRS (23 July 1903 – 16 August 1968) was a Scottish-born microbiologist; a former President of the Society for General Microbiology and recipient of the US Medal of Freedom.Dead Eyes
Dead Eyes is a story in 2000 AD which started in March 2008. It was written by John Smith, with art by Lee Carter.
The story involves a soldier and scientist who have escaped from Porton Down and their realisation of what is really going on.Defence CBRN Centre
The Defence Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Centre (the Defence CBRN Centre or DCBRNC for short) is a United Kingdom military facility at Winterbourne Gunner in Wiltshire, south of Porton Down and about 4 miles (6 km) northeast of Salisbury. It is a tri-service location, with the Royal Air Force being the lead service. The centre is responsible for all training issues relating to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence and warfare for the UK's armed forces.
It is also the home of the National Ambulance Resilience Unit's Training & Education Centre which, among other things, is responsible for training the NHS ambulance service's Hazardous Area Response Teams (HART). The centre was the home of the Police National CBRN Centre until it moved to NPIA facilities at Ryton, Warwickshire.Dorset Biological Warfare Experiments
The Dorset Biological Warfare Experiments were a series of experiments conducted between 1953 and 1975 to determine the extent to which a single ship or aircraft could dispense biological warfare agents over the United Kingdom. The tests between 1971–1975 were known as the DICE trials. The tests were conducted by scientists from Porton Down, initially using Zinc cadmium sulfide (ZnCds) as a simulated agent. Early results clearly showed that one aircraft flying along the coast while spraying its agent could contaminate a target over 100 miles away, over an area of 10,000 square miles. This method of Biological warfare attack and the test program to study it was known as the Large Area Coverage (LAC) concept.
In the early 1960s, Porton Down was asked to expand the scope of their tests to determine if using a live bacteria instead of ZnCds would significantly alter the results. Scientists from Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton Down selected South Dorset as the site for this next phase of testing, with Bacillus subtilis (also known as Bacillus globigii or BG) selected as the test agent.European Collection of Authenticated Cell Cultures
The European Collection of Authenticated Cell Cultures houses and supplies cell lines.
It is part of the Culture Collections of Public Health England. The collection is held in Porton Down.Gruinard Island
Gruinard Island ( GRIN-yərd;Scottish Gaelic: 'Eilean Ghruinneard') is a small, oval-shaped Scottish island approximately 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) long by 1 kilometre (0.6 mi) wide, located in Gruinard Bay, about halfway between Gairloch and Ullapool. At its closest point to the mainland it is about 1 kilometre (0.6 mi) offshore. The island was dangerous for all mammals after experiments with the anthrax bacterium in 1942, until it was decontaminated in the late 20th century.Health Protection Agency
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) was a non-departmental public body in the United Kingdom. It was an organisation that was set up by the UK government in 2003 to protect the public in England from threats to their health from infectious diseases and environmental hazards. It did this by providing advice and information to the general public, to health professionals such as doctors and nurses, and to national and local government. There were four HPA centres – at Porton Down in Salisbury, Chilton in Didcot, South Mimms in Hertfordshire, and Colindale in NW London. In addition, the HPA had regional laboratories across England and administrative headquarters in Central London. On 1 April 2013, the HPA minus the South Mimms site became part of Public Health England, a new executive agency of the Department of Health (DoH). The National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC) located in South Mimms was merged with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
The HPA's role was to provide an integrated approach to protecting public health in the UK by providing emergency services, support and advice to the National Health Service (NHS) and local authorities, other Arms Length Bodies, the Department of Health and the Devolved Administrations. The HPA also had a lead role in helping preparations for new and emerging health threats, such as a bioterrorism or in the event of an emerging virulent disease strain.Idmiston
Idmiston is a village and civil parish in Wiltshire, England. The village is about 3 miles (4.8 km) southeast of Amesbury and 6 miles (10 km) northeast of Salisbury. The parish includes the villages of Porton and Gomeldon; all three villages are on the River Bourne and are linked by the A338 road.
Porton Down military science park is in the parish, separated from Idmiston by the railway line. It is home to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and related businesses.Operation Antler (Porton Down investigation)
In July 1999 the UK Wiltshire Constabulary opened an investigation into allegations of malfeasance at Porton Down Chemical and Biological Research Establishment. As a consequence of these preliminary investigations the scope of the inquiry was broadened into a major inquiry named Operation Antler.
The inquiries established that a number of the participants in the Service Volunteer Programme claimed to have been tricked into taking part in experiments. Some also claimed to have suffered long-term illness or injury as a result of the experiments.
The investigation covered the period from 1939 to 1989 and has lasted for five years. Its thirteen members interviewed over 700 ex-servicemen or their relatives. The British Government provided the constabulary with an additional 870,000 pounds towards the costs.
At least 20,000 servicemen participated as volunteers in testing at Porton Down and records survive from 1942 onwards. The Second World War was the peak period for testing, and much of this concerned mustard gas, with as many as 8,000 volunteers being exposed. After 1945, testing shifted to nerve agents, and used around 3,400 volunteers (although they may not all have been exposed). In the 1960s, smaller scale experiments took place with non-lethal agents such as LSD and glycollates, and more recently testing focused on countermeasures such as pyridostigmine bromide which is a pre-treatment for nerve agents.
The constabulary developed 25 cases for possible prosecution, of which eight were forwarded to the Crown Prosecution Service. Subsequently, the CPS decided that there would be no prosecutions of scientists involved in the tests. The CPS decision was reviewed following the verdict of unlawful killing at the inquest in November 2004 into the death on 6 May 1953 of volunteer Ronald Maddison. In June 2006, the CPS confirmed that there would be no prosecutions.Operation Cauldron
Operation Cauldron was a series of secret biological warfare trials undertaken by the British government in 1952. Scientists from Porton Down and the Royal Navy were involved in releasing biological agents, including pneumonic and bubonic plague, brucellosis and tularaemia and testing the effects of the agents on caged monkeys and guinea pigs.PH7 (Peter Hammill album)
pH7 is an album by Peter Hammill, originally released on Charisma Records in September 1979. It was Hammill's eighth solo album and his last release on the Charisma label.
The song "Porton Down" refers to the Porton Down military research facility in Wiltshire, England, while the lyrics of "Imperial Walls" are a translation of the first few lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Ruin".
The song "Not For Keith" is a tribute to Keith Ellis, a former member of the band Van der Graaf Generator, who had then died just recently.
"Cover note: The photographs were all taken late at night in NYC. As we left Dan's [the photographer's] place in search of a cab Graham [Smith] and I ran into some trouble from which, frankly, we were lucky to escape...".Paul Fildes
Sir Paul Gordon Fildes (10 February 1882 – 5 February 1971) was a British pathologist and microbiologist who worked on the development of chemical-biological weaponry at Porton Down during the Second World War.Porton
Porton is a village in the Bourne valley, Wiltshire, England, about 5 miles (8 km) northeast of Salisbury. It is the largest settlement in Idmiston civil parish.
The village gives its name to the nearby Porton Down military science park, which is home to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and related businesses.Rawalpindi experiments
The Rawalpindi experiments were experiments involving use of mustard gas carried out by scientists from Porton Down of the British military on hundreds of Indian soldiers. Experiments were carried out before and during the Second World War in a military installation at Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan. These experiments began in the early 1930s and lasted more than 10 years.Since the publication of the story by Rob Evans of The Guardian on 1 September 2007, the experiments are referred to as the Rawalpindi experiments or Rawalpindi mustard gas experiments in the media and elsewhere.Ronald Maddison
Leading Aircraftman Ronald George Maddison (23 January 1933 – 6 May 1953) was a twenty-year-old Royal Air Force engineer who died as the result of exposure to nerve agents while acting as a voluntary test subject at Porton Down, in Wiltshire, England. After substantial controversy, his death was the subject of an inquest 51 years after the event.Stuart Rawlins (British Army colonel)
Colonel Stuart William Hughes Rawlins, (11 May 1880 – 16 December 1927) was a British Army officer who led interwar experiments in chemical warfare at Porton Down.Wood Green ricin plot
The Wood Green ricin plot was a 2002 alleged bioterrorism plot to attack the London Underground with ricin poison. The Metropolitan Police Service arrested six suspects on 5 January 2003, with one more arrested two days later.
Within two days, the Biological Weapon Identification Group at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down were sure that there was no trace of ricin on any of the articles that were found. This fact was initially misreported to other government departments as well as to the public, who only became aware of this in 2005. Reporting restrictions were in place before the public's perceptions could be corrected.The only subsequent conviction was of Kamel Bourgass, sentenced to 17 years imprisonment for conspiring "together with other persons unknown to commit public nuisance by the use of poisons and/or explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury" on the basis of five pages of his hand-written notes on how to make ricin, cyanide and botulinum. Bourgass had already been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of detective Stephen Oake, whom he stabbed to death during his arrest in Manchester. Bourgass also stabbed three other police officers in that incident; they all survived. All other suspects were either released without charge, acquitted, or had their trials abandoned.