A hundred years ago, the weapons research facility know as Porton Down came into being. This will hardly see cause for much celebration due its nature, but is it something Britain still needs, or instead a grim relic of the past which should be confined to history?
Why did Porton Down come into being in the first place, though? Well, in response to the worldwide threat imposed by Germany’s use of chemical weapons during the First World War, in 1916, the UK government sanctioned the opening of a specialist investigative team known as the War Department Experimental Station, in London. The main purpose of this group of secretly operating scientists was to test and research the effects, and the possible future uses, of the terrifying nerve shattering chemicals, mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene on human beings.
By 1918, this research concentrated on the development of gas masks and respirators for the soldiers on the front line. The scientists work had become too extensive to be carried out in a heavily populated area, so the whole enterprise, now known as the Royal Engineers Experimental Station, was moved to a remote location on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire; Porton Down.
After the end of the First World War, it was decided to keep up work on the base. Now however, the work not only concentrated on defence, but also on how to use chemicals for weapons of our own. The staff at Porton, then as now, operated under the strictest secrecy. Bound by the official secrets act, very few of the scientists on site were/are allowed to talk about their work. This makes discovering what goes on behind closed doors difficult.
However, over the last century of investigation, Porton is known to have altered its approach to its work. Whereas it began by working on how to prevent and develop chemical, and then biological, weapons (in particular an anthrax bomb which – had it ever been used- would have cased death on a massive scale), its primary function now is to help with the destruction of all the chemical weapons made in the past, and to develop ways to treat those affected by exposure to such weapons, as well as extensive medical research.
In the 1980’s Porton Down was the subject of large scale and very public animal rights demonstrations in response to the number of animals used in the medical and weapon testing departments on site. Such was the public outcry when it was discovered just how much livestock was subjected to horrific experimentation in the name of science, that strict government guidelines were imposed. Now, government inspections at Porton Down are frequent, and occur without warning.
The ethos at Porton Down, 100 years on from its birth, has changed from the development of weapons to the treatment of those affected by chemical and nerve attacking agents, and on to in-depth research into worldwide medical emergencies. For example, in 1976, when there was an Ebola outbreak in Africa, the first samples for testing were sent to Porton Down.
Now split into two major departments – known as the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) and the Defence Science and technology Laboratory (Dstl) – the work at Porton Down remains topical. Although the use of chemical weapons was banned as part of the Geneva Convention, they are being used more than ever before by terrorist groups and some governments – particularly in Syria. In 2013 Porton became the base from which to test the samples of Sarin (a horrifying nerve attacking chemical) after it was used against hundreds of civilians in there.
A hundred years on, the journey of Porton Down’s development is far from over. Working hand in hand with Public Health England, Porton has recently expanded beyond Salisbury Plain into premises once belonging to the pharmaceutical group, GlaxoSmithKline. By 2024, this new base in Harlow is likely to be the main base for Porton’s scientific future.
We will never know everything that goes on behind the closed doors of Porton Down. We do know however, that it has weathered its deep unpopularity of the 1980’s, and has developed military equipment and fail-safes that have saved many lives. The unknown scientists’ continuing medical research into the treatment of major viruses and pathogens is in my opinion indeed vital, as is their continued disarming of the chemical weapons that were made many decades ago both here and across the world.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.