Human guinea pigs

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The second atomic bomb was exploded at Bikini on 25 July 1946. Whereas the first bomb was dropped from an aeroplane, this one was detonated underwater. A ‘calm and implacable’ voice counted down the seconds as the final moment approached. 1 That voice belonged to Ernest Titterton.

Titterton had been one of the first British scientists to arrive at Los Alamos in 1943 to begin work on the atomic bomb. He was the last to leave in 1947, forced out by US postwar restrictions on the involvement of ‘foreign’ scientists in atomic research. 2 At Los Alamos, he and his young wife, Peggy, moved into the house next door to Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. 3 It was perhaps the most exciting time of his life. Still in his twenties, Titterton was working in the midst of the world’s scientific elite, struggling against time, against nature itself, to produce a weapon that might end the war and change the world forever.

The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left Titterton with no moral qualms. As he reflected some forty years later, 200,000 Japanese had died to save millions of allied soldiers. ‘It’s a curious way of looking at it’, he added, ‘but it was a humanitarian act’. 4 The youthful certainty that had inspired his work at Los Alamos never failed him. While others, like Mark Oliphant, were burdened by feelings of guilt and responsibility, Titterton remained a steadfast advocate of the development of atomic weapons. While many expressed doubts about the safety of atomic tests and the effects of fallout, Titterton remained an unequivocal source of calm reassurance. He seemed free of self-doubt and introspection.

In May 1985, Titterton spent four days in the witness box, answering questions before the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia. His assessment of the test program had changed little in thirty years, but the world had become more critical of experts, more sceptical of official assurances. Titterton was typically dismissive of criticism, remarking that while ‘the so-called pro nuclear deal in facts…the antis deal in fiction’. Confronted with William Penney’s admission that firing conditions might not have been as favourable as stated at the time, he suggested it was the comment of ‘a very tired man’, who sounded ‘very depressed’. 5 Titterton’s unbending certainty seemed out of step both with scientific opinion and public expectation. His performance at the Royal Commission offered an all too vivid reminder of the spirit of arrogance and conceit that had enabled the tests to proceed with scant attention to the health of servicemen and Aboriginal people. He cast himself in the role of apologist, and was condemned for it. While the actions of both British and Australian governments were criticised in the Commission’s findings, Titterton was singled out for particular note.

In 1987, a serious car accident left Ernest Titterton a quadriplegic. As he lay paralysed in his nursing home bed, surrounded by the elderly and incapacitated, Titterton’s powers of rational analysis were brought to bear upon his fate. He became a firm advocate of euthanasia, and held no doubts about the quality of his own life. ‘There is no hope and the sooner I’m dead and buried the better’, was his characteristically blunt assessment. His wish was finally granted in 1990. 6

The British atomic tests continue to receive attention as new problems emerge with the ‘clean-up’ of the site and servicemen struggle to win adequate compensation for their suffering. More generally, a growing sense of outrage and horror greets any suggestion that scientists may have involved unwitting human subjects in past experiments. In 1997, it was revealed that Macfarlane Burnet was involved in a series of ‘medical experiments’ upon orphans in the Broadmeadows Babies’ Home. In tests of a vaccine against the herpes virus, ‘every healthy child…between seven and ten months of age was selected as a human guinea pig’, reported an article in the Age. 7 More recently, the Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee and the National Radiation Advisory Committee have been criticised for their role in a program to monitor levels of strontium 90 in the environment as a result of atomic weapons tests. The committees arranged for bone samples to be collected from the bodies of children and adults. No permission was sought from families, and pathologists were advised to treat the sampling program as ‘confidential’. 8 Parents of children who died between 1957 and 1978 were left to wonder what might have become of their children’s remains.

We are, many commentators insist, living in a ‘risk society’, more aware than ever before of the unexpected consequences of scientific and industrial progress. And yet it seems we are more comfortable as victims of scientific arrogance than as active participants in an ongoing program of global experimentation. The community can unite in outrage over the use of ‘human guinea pigs’, but is slower to take responsibility for profound environmental impacts that might yield an unprecedented degree of change. Hugh McKay was right to be concerned about the effects of forest clearing upon a warming earth. After many failed attempts, we have discovered at last that it’s easy to change the climate, we’ve been doing it for years. Each day as we drive our car or flick on a light we make yet another contribution to this long-term experiment in atmospheric change. But the possibility that we are our own guinea pigs is more typically met with denial or indifference than a united call for action. We seem unwilling to face our anxieties, hoping instead the progress will once again triumph over any ‘unreal nervousness’. We are more attuned to risk, but still we face the future searching desperately for some new certainty that will save us from our fears. Perhaps our only hope of controlling the experiment that progress has delivered is to find a constructive role for our fear, to embrace uncertainty as a means of distributing power and hope.

 



Notes:

  1. David Bradley, No place to hide, University Press of New England, Hanover, 1984, p. 92.
  2. Margaret Gowing, Independence and deterrence: Britain and atomic energy, 1945-1952, vol. 1, Macmillan, London, 1974, p. 113.
  3. JO Newton, ‘Ernest William Titterton, 1916-1990’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 2, 1992, pp. 167-188.
  4. Quoted in JO Newton, ‘Ernest William Titterton, 1916-1990’.
  5. Milliken, No conceivable injury, pp. 68-70.
  6. JO Newton, ‘Ernest William Titterton, 1916-1990’.
  7. Age, 9 June 1997, p. 6.
  8. Quoted in Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, Austalian strontium 90 testing program, 1957-1978, ARPANSA, 2001, available at <http://www.arpansa.gov.au/strontium90.htm>.

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