Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Campaign to declassify Porton Down laboratory


  In 1968, an intense public opposition to chemical and biological weapons existed in the United Kingdom. This state of affairs was created by public anger and opposition to their use by the American government in the Vietnam conflict. Members of the public and environmental and disarmament groups became increasingly suspicious of the microbiological research establishment (MRE) at Porton Down, which was suspected of producing nerve gas. A campaign began to declassify the MRE at Porton Down.

 The campaign starting point was on 18 July 1968 with Labour M.P. Tam Dalyell's parliamentary question: should the Porton laboratory be transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Health and its work be made declassified? Maurice Wilkins and fellow Nobel Prize winners Cecil F Powell and Fred Sanger wrote to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in support and followed it up by orchestrating a press-campaign involving fellow Nobel Prize winners and Royal Society Fellows.





Wilkins systematically wrote to his fellow scientists about the issue urging them to write to Wilson. He received replies from the likes of Dorothy Hodgkin, Max Perutz, Richard Synge, Conrad Waddington and Sir Lawrence Bragg.


a copy of the letter that Maurice Wilkins sent to his fellow scientists

 Some of those who responded declined to support the campaign, like his former biophysics department colleague, Dame Honor Fell. She, like many of those who declined, although sympathetic argued that the chemical and biological warfare research done by the microbiological research establishment had acted as a deterrent in the Second World War against potential German nerve gas attacks.



 However, the majority of scientists who were asked agreed to support the campaign and twenty-one fellows of the Royal Society, including eight Nobel Prize winners endorsed the campaign. The result of the press campaign and mounting student and public anger was an official open day of the facility announced by Wilson scheduled for the 23-25 October 1968. Maurice Wilkins was one of a number of scientists who were invited to attend and his archive retains a copy of the official brochure produced for the visit.










  Wilkins later recalled that “many scientists came on the Open Day and a more open-minded attitude to the work there seemed to be created. But we came away well aware that with weapons such as these it was difficult to tell what research was for offensive use, and what was defensive, aimed at protecting people from them”.




  Here at King’s College London we have several collections on the work carried out at Porton Down and chemical and biological warfare in the Liddell Hart Centre Military Archives. Our large collection entitled “Gassed: British Chemical Warfare Experiments on Humans at Porton Down” the background research material for a book of the same name by journalist Rob Evans, charts the development of chemical and biological warfare there, the human experiments carried out and interviews with former employees of the lab. Another collection, Bad trip to Edgewood,  provides information on research carried at Porton Down as well as extensive transcripts and notes on chemical and biological warfare research carried by the US Government from 1955 to 1975.



Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Radium Island: A short story by Maurice Wilkins, aged eleven


Sometimes when working in an archive it is possible to stumble upon items that are truly unexpected, such as ‘Radium Island’. This charming story by a schoolboy Maurice Wilkins (written circa 1928 when he was eleven years old) tells of the adventure of Hugh O'Brien and Ronald Chrisp as they try to escape 'Radium Island'. What makes Radium Island interesting is not only its prescient title, given Maurice Wilkins' later work on the atom bomb "Manhattan Project", but also the classically boyish obsession with comics, new technology and war. It predates the first of W E Johns’ ‘Biggles’ stories by around four years.



Title page of Radium Island: The short story was written in a school exercise book for Wlyde Green College, Birmingham, the school Wilkins attended when his family moved to Birmingham and was probably written in 1928 (according to the older Maurice's recollection when he would have been eleven). The "Plan" refers to a map of Radium Island that can see be seen below. 


Map of Radium Island: This rather technical looking map of Radium Island could almost be mistaken for an authentic representation until you notice some of the captions such as "where the duel was fought" or "sign of the green dagger". However, if you were to try to find "Radium Island" using the longitude and latitude readings you would actually find the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

As the above map suggests Maurice Wilkins was quite a meticulous and technically adapt schoolboy. Already at this age he was creating model boats, cars and planes in his father's workshop inspired to some extent by the magazine The Modern Boy, with its reporting of powerful fast new machines like the one time like "world record breaking car Major Segrave's 1000 horsepower Sunbeam". This fascination with science and technology crops up throughout the story, including this oddly accurate geological description of the presence of radium:

"Chrisp was sitting looking blankly at the wall, when all of a sudden he sprang up and grabbed O'Brien by the shoulder and made him look at the shining vein of carnotite which yields radium situated in the opposite wall!"

For all non-geologists, carnotite is the mineral deposit that contains both uranium and radium ore. Who knew? Maurice Wilkins aged eleven.

Beginning of Radium Island where Chrisp and O'Brien are held captive by the natives on the island but discover Radium in their prison

Illustration of airplane: One of three drawings of airplanes in the story. Rather wonderfully, the text describes how he had bought the plane broken from an adventurer who had "bad luck with it" and reconstructed, then flew it, ran out petrol, crashed, was rescued, mended it again and then did not use it again for lack of petrol.