Thursday, 5 September 2013

70 Years Ago: The other Gruinard story

When anthrax hit the mainland

A lesser-known episode within the decades-long contamination of Gruinard Island by anthrax as a result of biological weapons research is the appearance of anthrax on the Scottish mainland in 1943 and the subsequent payment of compensation to owners of animals that had died. For a time there was a sort of legend about this compensation being paid ‘by return’ as soon as it was claimed. In fact those in charge did not exactly rush to the cash-box, as a Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) file, declassified in 1999, shows. (National Archives reference MAF 287/9, Outbreak of anthrax in Ross and Cromarty: claims for compensation, 1943-1968.) In 1968 the Ministry of Defence denied that it could find any record of compensation.

Tam Dalyell MP in New Scientist, 20 April 2002, p.51 quoted the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs at the MoD as saying “that archives now in the public domain show that following the tests there was an anthrax outbreak on the mainland which was said to be caused by an infected sheep being washed away from Gruinard. Between September 1942 and March 1943, seven cattle, two horses, three cats and between 30 and 50 sheep died on the nearby mainland, he added. However, the Ministry of Agriculture said that only two of these deaths were caused by anthrax.”

The news of the dead animals was communicated to the ministry by Mr A C Urquhart, Divisional Inspector for Animal Health, on 28 February 1943. The death of a heifer a week previously had been reported to the police as suspected anthrax, and in the previous year a carcase of a breed and origin “unknown locally” had been washed up in an inlet off Gruinard Bay. Local rumour suggested experiments of great secrecy going on, involving “poison gas dropped from aeroplanes”.

Dr Paul Fildes, leading the research, considered the business unfortunate, and the rumours important, but thought that if he sent a party to explore the mainland beaches “the whole thing would get out”. Instead he suggested locals might be asked to collect dead animals and birds and have them sent to Porton. If they had come from the island, he reckoned “our grave [of sheep used in the experiments] must have been disturbed by the winter storms”.

A Ministry of Agriculture Area Inspector sent to investigate confirmed that at least three sheep had been washed up the previous September, of which two had gone back out to sea. In his view deaths might quite probably recommence unless action was taken.

A cover story would be needed if there was to be an official response to formal claims for compensation. Enter Mr Fish, describing himself as a security office, who gave the line: to ascribe the anthrax’s origin to one sheep, which it was to be said had been traced to a Greek ship. The utmost secrecy as to the actual source of the sheep was essential, Fish explained, to prevent news of the Gruinard experiments reaching Germany. Fildes approved this “ingenious solution”, by which the payment of compensation of a little over £300 would be presented as a charge on the Greek government, to be settled between the two allies after the war.

Others were more sceptical. In a memo of 24 April 1943 from the Animal Health Division in Dingwall, Urquhart reported that the Greek ship story had gone down with the natives as well as could be expected. Personally he took a dim view, repeating that Gruinard was “too close” even though “you may get away with it this time”. He added his opinion that in spite of what the department concerned said, it was anthrax spore infection.

A meeting of ministry representatives with the Treasury in May came round to the idea of an “ex gratia” payment, while in a feat of double-think, MAF also took the view that compensation was properly payable as the trouble had arisen through the direct agency of HM Government and probably as a result of carelessness in the part of its agents. At the same time they agreed with Fildes about the need to avoid any disclosure of the nature of operations on the island, so that it would be preferable to pay via another Department, to avoid setting a precedent. The possibility of recurring outbreaks was a difficulty. The Minister of Information was against further payments in the event of more deaths. He thought the Greek ship story feasible, as it had already gained some credence, but the Treasury rejected it, although they could suggest no alternative other than to pay up and shut up about why.

After further discussion it was settled that the Ministry of Supply should make money available via a Scottish Office representative making a personal visit, and getting a receipt in full settlement from each crofter. Officials would accept the view that the trouble was in some way related to war conditions, and that it was made on account of the death of the animals. They would continue to monitor the situation and would arrange vaccination of animals.

Nevertheless, in September 1943 Urquhart found anthrax again confirmed in a dead heifer. He reckoned no clue to the origin of the infection could be found other than the Centre At Gruinard. In early October the owner claimed for the animal he had lost. Meanwhile men from the ministry met Fildes, who had admitted that while there was some doubt about activities on Gruinard being again responsible, it was the most plausible explanation. Eventually a letter was sent on 10 July 1944 stating that no compensation was being offered, but payment was being made with reference to the death of the animal. An envelope in the file contains a certificate of infection with anthrax.

Serious concerns were emerging. Apprehensively MAF enquired of Fildes whether he intended to initiate more experiments but were told the idea had been abandoned in favour of future collaboration with Canada and the USA, if more such work was needed. In June 1945 Fildes admitted to the War Cabinet Inter-Services Sub-Committee that Gruinard Island was very heavily infected, and would not be fit to restore for normal purposes for very long time, at least 30 years – an underestimate, as it turned out. He himself “hoped to be out of the subject in a few weeks”, having “no idea how to clean the island up”. MAF was to be consulted on any necessary action to prevent it being “a menace to the mainland”.

In July 1966 the Director of Microbiological Research at Porton was estimating that it would take 100 years to decontaminate the island – fortunately, this turned out to be an overestimate.

here is the full article as submitted to Medicine, Conflict & Survival

Gruinard Island nestles close to the mainland,
Aultbea, Laide and Isle Martin 

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