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The Living Weapon | Article

Paul Fildes

Paul Fildes. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, London

Knight and germ warrior, Sir Paul Fildes ran the biology department at Britain's secret Porton Down facility and oversaw his country's first attempts to develop biological weapons.

Becoming a Bacteriologist
Son of a noted painter who had illustrated books by Charles Dickens, Fildes was born in 1882 in London. As a young schoolboy he already displayed a scientific bent, even drafting a paper on "The passage of food to the stomach." Although he entered medical school in 1904 with the intent of focusing on surgery, Fildes soon moved into bacteriology. After working in a Royal Navy hospital, he joined Great Britain's Medical Research Council and became head of its Bacterial Chemistry Unit, editing a nine-volume treatise on the field. In 1940, with Britain at war with Nazi Germany, a new biology department was established at Porton Down, a secret British facility near Salisbury that had been established in 1916 to deal with the threat of chemical weapons. Fildes became the head of this department and began conducting research into offensive biological weapons. One early project, dubbed "Operation Vegetarian," investigated the practicality of dropping linseed cakes containing anthrax bacterial spores over Germany that would kill any cattle that ate them. Although Fildes ordered the production of five million of these cakes, they were never used. Fildes would later claim he participated in another biological warfare project that did go forward, however: the May 1942 assassination by the British Secret Service of high-ranking Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich near Prague. Heydrich was ambushed and later died of what had appeared to be minor wounds. Although his claims could not be substantiated, Fildes later said he "had a hand" in Heydrich's death, possibly by supplying the assassins with grenades containing botulinum toxin that were used in the attack.

Anthrax Island
Individual grenades were one thing, large-scale biological weapons another. As Fildes' anthrax experiments continued, he sensed the need for testing beyond that which could be conducted near a populated area like Salisbury. In the summer of 1942, Fildes and his colleagues settled on Gruinard Island, a remote 522-acre island off Scotland's northwest coast, as a field test site. After the military had bought the island and declared it off-limits, Fildes' team prepared it to become Great Britain's first outdoor biological weapons test site. On July 15, they dropped a bomb filled with anthrax bacterial spores from a six-foot wooden gallows about a hundred yards upwind from a group of 15 sheep, each of whom had been placed in crates with openings for their necks. The sheep began to present with symptoms of anthrax three days after the test; 13 of the animals eventually perished. Another similar test was successfully conducted on July 24. Some months later, on September 26, an airplane dropped a bomb filled with anthrax bacterial spores onto the island, but the bomb became lodged in a bog and thus none of its payload was released. Fildes' team then repeated that experiment a month later on a beach in Wales and this time it went off without a hitch. The British now became convinced that they could make anthrax bombs work, but realized they needed help with the large-scale production of anthrax bacteria. For this they sought America's help.

Turning to America
The Americans had been slower to investigate biological weapons than the British, but in terms of industrial capacity, they had no peer. In November 1942, Fildes and a colleague arrived in Washington, where they requested that the United States set up production facilities sufficient to produce large amounts of anthrax bacterial spores (called "Agent N") and botulinum toxin ("Agent X"). Their initial order was for seven pounds of Agent X, and an American team overseen by Ira Baldwin at Camp Detrick began working on this in June 1943. They were able to fulfill this order within a couple of months.

Anthrax Bombs
Not everyone on the British side approved of the mass production of biological weapons; for example, when they learned of Fildes' activities, two members of the Biological Warfare Committee that oversaw Porton Down raised strenuous objections. But they were overruled by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who in March 1944 ordered 500,000 anthrax bombs from America. That summer Fildes drew up plans for massive anthrax bombing raids of Germany, including the resumption of Operation Vegetarian. Although Allied military victory ended the war in Europe before any of these operations were conducted, Fildes continued his research and development program and was rewarded for his services with knighthood in 1946. He carried out open-sea testing of weapons during the winter of 1948-49 near the British colony of Antigua. With the rise of British nuclear capacity during the 1950s, interest in offensive biological weapons lessened, and eventually Fildes left Porton Down. He died a year before the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention that banned offensive biological weapons came into being. Gruinard Island remained contaminated until 1986, when British scientists finally found a way to kill the bacterial spores that had been infesting "Anthrax Island" since Fildes' tests more than 40 years earlier.

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