Final agony of RAF volunteer killed by sarin
- in Britain
Summary of The Guardian article
by Antony Barnett, Public Affairs Editor
Sunday, September 28, 2003
Ronald Maddison innocently took part in experiments in 1953 because he believed he was helping to find a cure for the common cold. But the experiment killed him instead. Alfred Thornhill witnessed the Royal Air Force volunteer's torment because of sarin, a lethal nerve gas.
Porton Down threatened Mr. Thornhill to never divulge what he saw that day in May 1953, so he never did until recently when he could not keep silent any longer after 50 years.
An inquest was held into Ronald Maddison's death. He was a human guinea pig at Porton Down. Porton Down is the British government's top secret chemical weapons laboratory in Wiltshire built in 1916 to compete with Germany's chemical weapons technology.
Alfred Thornhill answered an emergency call and witnessed the convulsing body of 20-year-old Ronald Maddison, whose name he did not know for 50 years, thrashing around on the floor, spewing substances from his mouth. By dropping 200mg of sarin onto Maddison's sleeve, which killed him 45 minutes later, they used him to help determine the dosage of the lethal nerve agents.
Thornhill told of the agonising last hours of Maddison's life in which he stated that what the lad went through was absolutely horrific...it was awful" he said continuing "It was like he was being electrocuted, his whole body was convulsing. I have seen somebody suffer an epileptic fit, but you have never seen anything like what happened to that lad...the skin was vibrating and there was all this terrible stuff coming out of his mouth...it looked like frogspawn or tapioca."
It shines a light into the murky past of this secretive establishment and the shocking experiments carried out on volunteers. Hundreds are suspected of dying prematurely or going on to develop illnesses such as cancer, motor neurone disease, and Parkinson's. Despite the grief and fury of survivors and their families, over the decades successive governments have sought to bury the scandal. But Thornhill's testimony could change all that.
There were scientists standing around Maddison. They had panic in their eyes - one scientist looked as if he was trying to hold his head down. Four men picked Maddison off the floor and put him in the back of the ambulance. He was still having these violent convulsions and we drove him to the medical unit at Porton which had been cleared of other casualties.
Thornhill stated, "I saw his leg rise up from the bed and I saw his skin begin turning blue. It started from the ankle and started spreading up his leg. It was like watching somebody pouring a blue liquid into a glass; it just began filling up. I was standing by the bed gawping. It was like watching something from outer space and then one of the doctors produced the biggest needle I had ever seen. It was the size of a bicycle pump and went down onto the lad's body. The sister saw me gawping and told me to get out."
The next day Thornhill was 'devastated' when he was told by a medical officer that the young man had died. He recalls the whole medical unit stinking of Dettol as if it had been sprayed everywhere to decontaminate the rooms. Thornhill drove the body to the mortuary at Salisbury Hospital and was told to take the back roads.
Thornhill kept quiet for two reasons, even though suspicious, as 1953 was long before people began to question governmental activities. He stated, "I was called into an office and read the riot act by a medical officer. He made me sign something and told me if I ever spoke a word about what I saw at Porton Down I would be sent to prison...."
This past summer Thornhill heard a report on a local Manchester radio station about a police inquiry into the death of the RAF engineer Ronald Maddison at Porton Down. Then it all fit into place. He stated, "I stopped in my tracks when I heard it. I knew that was it him, that it was Maddison. It was the right date, he was in the RAF and they said it was the only person who had died at Porton."
Thornhill provided the Wiltshire police a nine-page statement detailing all he knew and saw at Porton Down during his time there for their inquiry. An original MoD inquest was held in secret in 1953 and recorded a verdict of death by misadventure.
Although the police inquiry into events at Porton Down found insufficient evidence to mount a criminal prosecution, their findings were passed to Lord Chief Justice Woolf who ruled that the inquest must be reopened. Lawyers for Maddison's family and the hundreds of other volunteers who have suffered subsequent illnesses are hoping for a verdict of "unlawful killing."
Thornhill now wants to meet Maddison's family so he can talk to them about what he saw. "What that lad went through was horrendous, it shouldn't have been allowed to happen to anybody. We talk about Saddam Hussein gassing his own people but what we did at Porton Down was the same... I want his family to have some justice."
Editor's note: Neither the UK nor Germany would have needed to establish this kind of centre if governments would be honest with people.
The coroner's report was never released but Lord Chief Justice Woolf has now ordered a fresh inquest.