Porton Down serviceman 'unlawfully killed'
16:56pm 15th November 2004
An inquest jury today returned a verdict of unlawful killing on the death of
a young RAF engineer who took part in secret nerve gas tests 51 years ago.
Ronald Maddison, from Consett, County Durham, died after having drops of
Sarin dabbed on his arm at Porton Down chemical warfare testing facility in
Wiltshire in 1953.
His family claim he and other military personnel were duped into taking part
in what they believed were harmless experiments.
It took jurors sitting in Trowbridge five hours to reach their verdict on
the 64th day of the inquest.
Mr Maddison, 20, a Leading Aircraftman based in Swindon, was one of many
human volunteers involved in tests from 1939 to 1989 and lawyers believe the
verdict could open the door for other service personnel to sue the Ministry
The inquest was the second to be held into Mr Maddison's death. Lord Chief
Justice Lord Woolf quashed the original verdict of death by misadventure in
2002 and said a new inquest was needed in the interests of justice.
The jury of six men and four women concluded today that the cause of Mr
Maddison's death was "application of a nerve agent in a non-therapeutic
A spokesman for the MoD said: "The Ministry of Defence notes the jury's
findings and will now take some time to reflect on these.
"We will be seeking legal advice on whether we wish to consider a judicial
review. We don't believe the verdict today has implications for other
volunteers. However, we will consider the implications."
Lethal chemical agents
The new inquest was ordered after Wiltshire Coroner David Masters was given
files by Wiltshire police documenting the "insufficiency of the original
inquest and that the coroner in 1953 was not apparently provided with all
the potentially available relevant material".
The files were handed over after a £2.8 million police investigation into Mr
Maddison's death, which began in July 1999.
In April 2002 the Attorney General gave Mr Masters permission to make an
application at the High Court for the original inquest's verdict to be
quashed and for a fresh inquiry to be opened.
The new inquest jury was told by Gerwyn Samuel, for the Maddison family, how
servicemen were told tests on them at Porton Down were to find a cure for
the common cold when the men were really being exposed to potentially lethal
chemical agents such as Sarin.
But the MoD insisted all the servicemen tested at Porton Down were told
beforehand they were taking part in nerve gas experiments.
The MoD, represented by Leigh-Ann Mulcahy, told the inquest there was no
documentary evidence to support the veterans' claims.
Exposed volunteers to 'danger'
In 2001, after the re-investigation of Mr Maddison's death began, Professor
Sir Ian Kennedy, a world-leading professor of ethics, was commissioned by
the MoD to write a chapter of the Porton Down Historical Survey.
But controversially, Sir Ian said that researchers were "acting on the edge
of their knowledge" when they exposed volunteers to the "uncontrollable
danger" of Sarin, a lethal chemical agent, in tests at Porton Down
The dabbing of Sarin on to the skin of Mr Maddison took place after another
such test resulted in the "near-fatal" poisoning of another volunteer, Army
serviceman James Kelly, nine days earlier, the court was told in September.
Responding to revelations that Sarin tests continued in a mobile gas chamber
after Mr Maddison's death despite a Government ban, endorsed by Winston
Churchill, Dr Paul Rice, currently a researcher at Porton Down, insisted his
1950s predecessors had acted in "reasonably good faith".
The new inquest heard evidence from an ex-army ambulance driver called to
help Mr Maddison. Alfred Thornhill told the jury: "He was convulsing and
foam was coming out of his mouth.
"Then he was taken into the medical centre where there were scientists and
medical people. They just threw him on to the bed and gave him a big
"It was a terrible atmosphere - they were all panicking. They couldn't
handle what they were looking at."
Porton Down has been in the front line of Britain's research into the use of
and defence against chemical weapons for the last 85 years.
From mustard gas in the First World War to the dismantling of Iraq's weapons
of mass destruction and the threat of terrorist chemical attack, scientists
based at the base have been involved in top-level and highly secretive work.