Microbiological Research Establishment

Introduction

The Microbiological Research Establishment

Somewhat to my surprise, since putting this page on-line I've received a lot of advice, news and help from other people pointing out and helping me correct some of the information I presented here. It's all down to age and memory I'm afraid! Anyway, I particularly wish to mention with gratitude the aid of Professor Brian G. Spratt and "Icewhale" - they both provided me with useful documentation - so useful that I've included new links at the bottom of this page.

In 1974, aged only seventeen, I applied for a post of Assistant Scientific Officer at the Microbiological Research Establishment, Porton Down, near Salisbury in Wiltshire.

I had left school the previous year with a bare five GCE 'O' Level passes, in the sciences, maths and English, and had been working as a clerk in a large Army stores in Hampshire when my mother brought home a booklet about working within the Scientific Civil Service.

I was interviewed at Porton Down and was offered one of two A.S.O. positions within the small team studying Monkey B Virus (herpes simiae) a rather nasty virus that is fairly common in Old World monkeys and which has a roughly 80% mortality rate in any humans unlucky enough to become infected with it – an exciting responsibility for a 17 year old!

Employment Offer

However, it was several months before my Security Clearance came through and so it was a very apprehensive, inexperienced but very excited young man that arrived at M.R.E. in June of 1974.

Experimental Histo-Pathology Laboratory

A period of careful training and indoctrination followed, mostly dictated by the need for various immunisations I received to become effective. The general policy was that anything that had been or was studied at M.R.E. and for which there was a vaccine available, I (and everyone else) would receive. This included a painful vaccine against Plague and injections for exotic diseases such as Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis, Anthrax, Brucellosis, Tularaemia and Louping ill. In general, all these were boosted with repeat injections yearly!

But this initial period also gave me time to receive essential safety training in basic laboratory aseptic techniques in the Experimental Histo-Pathology section.

I also received security training which mostly consisted of lectures in how to spot and resist approaches from agents of hostile governments (that'll be the Russians then, it being the height of the Cold War – no-one actually said "Russian" but it was clearly understood that the Communist Bloc was The Enemy.) I also received a small book entitled "Their Trade is Treachery" that I still own (not to be confused with the later Chapman Pincher book of the same name.)

This was also when I was issued my personal biological respirator – this was essentially, the military gas-mask of the period but fitted with a biological rather than a chemical filter. A fun afternoon was spent checking its fit in a CS gas chamber, where I learnt that CS gas has an affinity for clothing – something I learned after leaving the chamber and being told by the staff that it was now OK to take off my mask. A lesson well learned – trust no one!

Security Book

Preliminary Stuff

Porton Down at the time consisted of two distinct establishments – C.D.E., the Chemical Defence Establishment being the senior establishment and M.R.E. No-one was encouraged to talk to anyone about their work and this did mean that, especially at my junior level, I made no real contact with anyone at C.D.E. Actually, the insularity of M.R.E. was such that it was quite difficult to make friends at M.R.E. let alone the rest of Porton Down.

Regrettably, the press in particular did not tend to distinguish between these two establishments, and happily took the worst rumours of both establishments so as to make one sensational story, as and when they could. Since I've already said I didn't work for and had no contact with anyone at C.D.E., I can't talk about the place, other than saying it was in the same (very large) part of Salisbury Plain as M.R.E. The staff canteen was on C.D.E.'s premises however, and for an impoverished junior member of staff, was an excellent source of subsidised nourishment. Incidentally, neither Establishment is on Porton Down, they are both on Idmiston Down. But everyone knows Porton Down as being "The Germ Warfare Place" and so that's where it must be.

The majority of work at M.R.E. was of a highly-reputed medical research nature. The B Virus team (there was four of us, two senior Scientists and two of us A.S.O.'s) was funded by the Medical Research Council and had nothing to do with the military – this was typical of a large number of the research studies taking place at M.R.E. There are plenty of Papers published with the author happily stating his place of employment as M.R.E. – a quick search of the 'net throws up plenty of references to published work by M.R.E. Scientists – a google for "herpes simiae" for instance throws up references to "Latency of Herpes Simiae (B Virus) in Rabbits" and "Recovery of Herpes Simiae (B Virus) From Both Primary and...", papers I contributed to.

Nonetheless, it was a military (M.O.D. Procurement Executive) establishment and that meant we were very security conscious – the whole area was guarded by Mod Plod and no-one even thought of bringing a camera to work – although cameras were available – normally bolted to the top of microscopes – I ended up with a good grounding in darkroom techniques and practices, a skill I guess is no longer required with the advent of the age of the digital camera.

Still there are a few publicly available pictures of M.R.E. around and I've interspersed this account with the ones I have. Most of them come from a publicity brochure that originated with the Open Days held at M.R.E. in the late 60's and updated in the 70's. Open Days at a Top Secret establishment? Don't underestimate the willingness of people today to believe in Conspiracy Theories and Government Black Ops – I've already said that, as its name plainly indicates, M.R.E. was a Research establishment.

That's not to say that no Biological Warfare Defence research wasn't taking place – just that it was a relatively small part of the Establishment's work at that time and that I wasn't much involved in it.

Monkey B Virus

Once my immunisations became effective, and I was deemed to be trained enough to be let loose in my own lab, I moved into the High Containment area where I, with my colleague, was responsible for two laboratories and two animal rooms. This was a restricted area within a restricted area if you will, because of the animals and the pathenogenicity of the viruses we were handling.

Herpesvirus Simiae is extremely common in Old World monkeys, as common perhaps as the cold sore viruses, Herpes Simplex Type I is in humans. And in said monkeys, if it shows symptoms at all, it shows as cold sores. Unfortunately, if a human gets infected with B Virus, the virus prefers to attack the brain and surrounding membranes, resulting in a very serious encephalomyelitis and a high chance of death. Not nice at all.

SA8 was another virus in our -70°C freezers, believed to be quite closely related to B Virus and thus a similar, (but not proven, fortunately) or perhaps lower mortality rate.

The labs contained Porton designed filtered air cabinets, where the contents were accessed though very long rubber gloves covering port-holes. It was here that in vitro type work was performed, culturing and assaying viruses on monolayer cell cultures. It was in these that any work that might be accurately termed "dangerous" took place, with the cabinet and it's contents sterilised after work with boiling formaldehyde.

In vivo work was carried out in the animal rooms – here, a very different protection regime was followed. Staff had to completely change into...

  • Surgical gown
  • Army pyjamas
  • Surgical hood
  • Dunlop Wellingon boots
  • Surgical gloves
  • Biological respirator

...before entering the rooms. We then had to strip off and shower upon leaving the room, taking great care to stay as "clean" as possible, mostly through the application of dilute chloros to our gloves, boots and mask (chloros is a chlorine-based disinfectant, bright pink in colour when fresh, turning yellow as it's alkalinity and efficacy wore off)

Full Protection

As an A.S.O. I was able to carry out my out research and experiments (albeit closely supervised and monitored) and to that end I required a Home Office Licence to Experiment Upon Living Animals. The licence itself was a seriously impressive parchment bound literally with red tape. But I only ever saw it the once – the Personnel Department took it off me almost immediately and all I was left with was the letter I've displayed here.

Animal Licence

Licence Conditions

It is a sad fact that viruses in particular can be a real bugger to culture in laboratory conditions – and if you can't grow them you can't study them – and hopefully find a cure and/or vaccine. Regrettably this means working with animals. I performed LD50 tests using litters of mice, hamsters and guinea pigs. Monkeys, being the natural vector of B Virus, would have been the obvious choice but they were too expensive to both purchase and to keep. We did have a fair number of Rhesus, Vervet and Grivet monkeys in the High Containment rooms, these usually being "donated" to us by other laboratories after discovering that the animals had tested positive for B Virus and hence too dangerous for the researchers to risk handling themselves. Safari Parks were also a source of infected monkeys. After all, it's bad enough having a tribe of monkeys rip the windscreen wipers off of your car without them also infecting you with B Virus!

Unfortunately, even today, herpesviruses seem to be very resistant to our attempts to produce a vaccine and to date, there is still no cure for any virus – palliative care, treating symptoms as they appear, is the only pro-active course available for anyone infected with any virus, whilst waiting for the bodies' own defences to see off the sub-microscopic intruders. We did an early test on acyclovir, a drug proposed to be beneficial against herpes infections – it was hoped it would relieve cold sores by directly attacking the herpesvirus simplex Type I responsible. We had some problems finding a solvent it would dissolve in, and eventually settled on DMSO (Dimethyl Sulphoxide), a solvent that smells of rotten cabage. Acyclovir and it's derivatives are being actively marketed today but hopefully, not with an unpleasant odour or taste attached!

 

Infected with B Virus

All Rights Reserved© 2017 William Parker

VERO Cells, normal

All Rights Reserved© 2017 William Parker

The fact is that animal experimentation generates extreme emotions in some people – if you're against it, nothing I or anyone else can say, will convince you that it might be necessary. So I won't try. As far as I am concerned, no experiment I was involved in that used animals was pointless and un-necessary and we did all we could do to ensure no animal suffered at all if we could help it – and if we needed reminding of our humane obligations, the terms of the Licence dictated this to us in no uncertain terms.

I did have one or two untoward incidents – I cut my finger rather badly removing a stubborn blade from a dirty scalpel – rather than immediately irrigating the would with chloros, I decided I didn't fancy a deep alkaline wash in a painful, freely bleeding finger and so I used pure alcohol instead! Not one of my most well-thought out decisions. I'm sure my anguished scream was heard the length of M.R.E. For those who don't know, alkali might produce a nasty burn eventually, but it is mostly painless and very sterilising in a short wash. Fortunately, all I ended up with was a scar, now almost faded, on my finger – it could've been a lot worse.

Another time, I wandered up to the Medical Station, feeling slightly woozy and unwell. My temperature was well above 102°F and no-one could work out why I was still upright and coherent! I wanted to drive myself home but the M.O. put his foot down on that one. I've no idea what I had but after a few days I was right as rain again. One duty I did have was to carry a bright yellow wallet card around with me stating that I worked at M.R.E. and that if I was determined to be suffering from a PUO (Pyrexia of Unknown Origin) the doctor in charge was to contact the Safety Officer at M.R.E. urgently. I no longer have that card but I do have this larger one that I had to display in my digs.

Medical Notice

My colleague had a worse accident; he got bitten by an infected animal and was promptly injected multiple times with badly-haemolysed rabbit serum hurried produced from a rabbit with a high titre of B Virus antibodies. He never went down with anything, so it all ended well.

Dorset Spray Trials

The nearest I came to an active role in the Cold War came in late summer of 1975 when I was "volunteered" along with a number of other A.S.O.'s, to participate in the so-called DICE trials on Portland Bill near Weymouth.

We were thoroughly trained in radio techniques, operation of the sampling equipment and once again warned of security. Learning the NATO Phonetic Alphabet actually came in quite useful in later years, when it helped me gain my Private Pilots Licence!

As far as I was concerned, this was great fun – almost as good as a holiday and definitely a change from day to day routine. We junior staff were all housed in Weymouth B&B's (who no doubt were pleased to see us, it being the end of the holiday season) and despite Weymouth being mostly closed and having to share a room, I was having a great time.

Land Rover Sampler

Land Rover Sample Station

Each day we were taken by minibus to the Underwater Weapons Research Establishment right on the tip of Portland Bill and drove our Land Rover sampling stations around the grounds to achieve a good spread. The samplers were driven by vacuum pumps powered by the land rovers themselves and our job was to ensure the vacuums were good and that the sample collectors were changed regularly. Not in itself a very difficult job, all in all, but on a cold day, the Bill can be very uncomfortable.

The samplers were quite admirably designed, incorporating a sort of Perspex double cyclone invented at Porton – long before Dyson popularised cyclones generally. The cyclone had two tasks, it (like a Dyson) had to spin the sample so any bacteria could be targeted at the sample medium and it stabilised and maximised the output from the vacuum pump – rev the engine as much as you like, the cyclone would never let the sampler be overloaded. Very clever.

MRE Cyclone Sampler

RMAS Cockchaferl

The challenges were sprayed from a Land Rover tied down to the deck of a small ship manoeuvring around Lyme Bay, depending on wind direction and speed. The ship used was the Fleet Tender Cockchafer (previous trials had used the Icewhale) – I found this picture of RMAS Cockchafer on the web. But I've no real idea if it was the one used at "my" trial. If it was, the ship is still in use today as a small cruise ship, the Fyne Spirit, touring the Scottish Highlands. Whatever, the general consensus was that we had it easy compared to the poor so-and-so's bouncing up and down on the ship. As a rule, we tended to see the ship as a tiny dot manoeuvring backwards and forwards around Lyme Bay, and I certainly never got close enough to it to clearly identify it.

ETV Icewhale

At the end of the day, we were all bussed to the Coastguard station at Fleet to hand over our samples and for a general debriefing (in Golden Arrow, the Control vehicle) while our samples were incubated in Night Ferry, the mobile laboratory. The code names really were only used over the radio, not in day-to-day conversation.

Coastguard Station at Fleet

Then, finally, we were all released and transported back into Weymouth, a journey that rapidly became a weary trudge after several long days in a row.

We were told that we were providing a calibration service for American equipment – it was already known that our equipment was reliable and accurate from previous trials, but from a military point of view, it is hardly acceptable to wait one or two days while we incubate the samples before we can determine if the enemy are spraying something nasty at us. But the US equipment, which detected threat almost immediately, was not then much beyond prototype design stage and needed a lot of data before it could be calibrated and relied upon.

The trial itself covered, to the best of my knowledge, four weeks, with two sets of staff working a fortnight each.

Coastguard Station at Fleet

Recent journalism on these trials has talked about the arrogance of spraying dangerous pathogens over the general population. But readers should perhaps be aware of a few pertinent facts.

At the time of the trial, there was no evidence that any of the organisms were in any way dangerous, let alone pathogenic. I never met anyone who made any claims that what we were doing was anything other than completely harmless. ISM (Inactivated Serratia Marcescens) is dead and has no infectious qualities whatsoever. Bacillus Globigii (now called b. Subtilis sub niger) even today is not known to be a primary cause of infection, and is only an opportunist agent in people already quite ill. Professor Spratts' excellent report clearly states this, indicating that whilst it is conceivably possible that a susceptible individual might experience some effects from the spraying, it is just that, a small-risk possibility. And that's with today's knowledge.

Why spray over the land? We didn't. Well sort of. The target was us, the staff working on the very tip of Portland Bill. And no, none of us suffered any symptoms whatsoever, as far as I an aware (I know I didn't, anyway) – Earlier trials are outside of my remit, as such – but I'd still argue that they were performed by professional staff with the highest of motives and with moral virtue.

Golden Arrow Control Vehicle

Why was it secret? Because we were part of an M.O.D. establishment and it was engrained into us. Not only that, it was engrained into the whole population. The Cold War was a real fact to us all who lived through it – and it was clearly understood and accepted by all of us (except Duncan Campbell!) that what we didn't need to know we weren't going to be told.

Was it useful? That requires a quantitative answer I am not qualified or knowledgeable enough to give. But my feeling is that, as with all my work at M.R.E., none of it was wasted, one way or another it provided knowledge.

Of course, if you're a sensationalist conspiracy theorist, you'll simply discount me and carefully not bookmark this page.

English Electric Canberra B(I)8

Later Years

Back into my normal routine at M.R.E., I was becoming more technically capable, responsible and competent. My name was getting mentioned in published work, although I was years away from being experienced, and qualified enough to be respected as an author in my own right.

We even had a huge party late in 1976 to celebrate M.R.E.'s Silver Jubilee.

Silver Jubilee

Silver Jubilee

I fought hard to get onto the 1976 Dorset Trial – after all, it was the nearest I could get to a holiday on my salary. Unfortunately, it was my colleague's turn for a trip to the Bill. It all became rather academic anyway when the Trial was cancelled. As far as I am aware there has never been another Trial in the UK, let alone in Dorset.

But I was gradually becoming aware of a growing dissatisfaction with my job in general and my career in particular. The reality was that without a University Degree, my career simply wasn't going to go any further forward. Even with a day release education scheme available to me, it was going to be two or three years before I even obtained a HND (Higher National Diploma) and the most that would get me was one step up the career ladder, to Scientific Officer.

I was also having real difficulty finding somewhere to live – even the rent for a grotty bed-sit, a rare yet desirable (to me at least) commodity in Salisbury, was beyond my meagre income. And I still had to find transport to get to and from work. I had downgraded from a car to a small motorcycle, but I couldn't even afford the insurance premiums on that. It was getting a bit desperate and impacting my ability to concentrate on my work.

Finally, a senior scientist studying Marburg Disease just a few labs from me accidentally contracted the disease. In fact Geoff Platt seems to have caught a mild strain of Ebola but at the time, it looked like Green Monkey/Marburg Disease. Thankfully, Geoff fully recovered but I think it brought home to everyone that if someone as senior as Geoff could be caught out, it was possibly time to tighten up safety procedures, particularly with youngsters like me – I often worked alone in the High Containment labs, with seriously nasty pathogens and I don't suppose for one minute that this is allowed in today's safety-conscious society.

Around this time Nancekuke (now RAF Portreath) was decommissioned. This was really a C.D.E. site, so of little interest to us – it was where C.D.E.'s supplies of Nerve Agents were manufactured – but it was yet another symptom of a growing unease at M.R.E. at what the future would hold for us – after all, research is an expensive business and, perhaps quite rightly, the M.O.D. didn't want to fund it with no obvious returns for themselves.

I was more interested in my weekly foray to the excellent library, where I made a bee-line for the New Scientist and Bill Tidy's very funny "Grimbledon Down" cartoon strip. Perhaps it's clear from this that I wasn't cut out to be a top-flight scientist!

And indeed, I wanted a change myself by then and was quite happy to move to M.R.E.'s Experimental Plant where I worked for several months in a laboratory investigating and fine-tuning DNA extraction techniques.

But the fact was I still had money woes, accommodation problems and of course, by then I had found a girl. There's always a girl in stories like this, at this stage of the tale! It seems that a change was not as good as a rest. In the end I simply ran out of enthusiasm and ideas and thus, after three years, I quietly resigned my position – bizarrely, with tax rebates coming in for the next year I was financially better off on the dole than I had ever been at M.R.E.

I worked in one or two laboratories as a technician for a few years after that but then changed direction entirely, re-training in IT and Computer Programming – I quite honestly looked around at what jobs were paying the most and then went straight at it. And a degree from the Open University very much sealed the deal. Fortunately, I enjoyed the challenge of coercing a computer into producing the results I wanted in the format I required.

Nevertheless I do not regret my time at Porton Down at all. They were very much one of the most formative times of my life and I learned an incredible amount – not least of which, I learnt that I enjoyed learning, so unlike my school days. I claim that if M.R.E. had paid me a wage that it was possible to exist on, I would have stayed there. Even today, I remember my time at M.R.E. more readily than any other job I have held.

M.R.E. ceased to exist, as the literature has it, in 1979. That's not a very clear way of reporting the facts but it IS how they were reported. In fact, it just had a change of name and funding no longer came from the MOD. Research Groups like the B Virus team would doubtless have noticed no real change (except on where their pay packets and pension plans came from). CAMR as it now is, is still a centre of excellence and has the added benefit of being close to Dstl, Porton Down (the renamed C.D.E., in effect) and hence somewhat protected from those who think something truly sinister is happening there.

Downloads

I've set up but two downloads here, both rather large PDF's.

Professor Brian Spratt produced a paper in 1999 at the request of the MOD evaluating the health risks of various Porton Down spray trials. This paper was so hard to find that in the end, I contacted Brian directly and he very kindly sent me a copy. The net result of his report is that there was no real risk to the Weymouth population except maybe, just maybe, somebody already seriously ill might be impacted. But then again, your interpretation of his report might be rather different, depending on what theory you are trying to support!

Recently, the Americans' (specifically, the US Army Armanent Research And Development Command) report of the Trials was released under the Freedom of Information laws. "Icewhale" kindly contacted me and offered to send me a copy. The report has been redacted to a certain extent, but it is still quite understandable and it certainly helped to bring back memories of cold Autumn days spent on the Bill watching the Cockchafer bounce back and forth.

As far as I am aware, all of the above information is inside of the public domain – it's just that it isn't all that easy to find and collate it.

 

 

 

 

 William Parker 
© 2017 All Rights Reserved
  Amended:- 8th February 2010
Review:- (whenever)
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