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Session 6: Working with Knowledge - Coming Back to and Using the Information held in Records

Science Archives: Humanising and Popularising the Stories

Bridget Goodwin

Bond University

Most of us here today know that science archives whisper to us about forgotten scandals, about early discoveries and about political intrigue - plots and scams by scientists to persuade governments, the military, or other large institutions to support research. It is called research because by its nature the experimenters do not know the outcomes of their scientific pursuits. As historians we have the glorious benefit of hindsight to know the outcome - as though like the Gods, we can tell the conclusions to these pursuits well before the lowly mortals have fully launched into their research. Unlike scientists, historians are concerned with the human stories behind this research - by the eccentric characters and the wheeling and dealing that is done to enable research to occur.

To present day readers, science archives have a kind of quaintness about them. Since we now know the outcomes of research done a generation or more ago, they may have limited appeal to present-day scientists, who are already involved with new adventures. Its curious to think that in the future these present day ventures now considered to be so ground-breaking, will in the future be curiosities in archives. But for those of us who are determined to pick over what the scientists have left for us in the archives we need to consider ways to make this research "live" again - to bring alive the material in scientific reports that many - particularly non-scientists - would consider very dry indeed. I found myself involved in this very task when I was writing my recent book, Keen As Mustard, about the top secret chemical warfare field trials that were held in this country in co-operation with Britain and the United States during the Second World War.

In the case of this research I was concerned to humanise the narrative of how this research came to be and to make accessible the details of what questions the scientists were pursuing against the backdrop of strategic concerns in the Pacific War at the time. I wanted to humanise the story because I had been fortunate enough to be introduced to it by the human players - the former chemical warfare unit volunteers, laboratory assistants and scientists - who had told me incredible stories about their time in this secret unit. I knew I needed to formalise these oral history accounts against whatever documentation I could find to write it up as classical history - but at the same time I wanted to retain the colour and drama of the period as it had been recounted to me by the unit contemporaries. And so I set about researching the archives with a view to feed my desire to reinforce this narrative and ultimately produce what I felt should be not just a valuable piece of history - but a great read.

Research for this book was fed by the incredible response I had from the documentary film I produced ten years ago, which screened on ABC-TV in 1989 and was subsequently screened in six other countries. Most spectacularly, the film was broadcast on BBC-TV’s Horizons program on the eve of the United Nations deadline in the Gulf War. The subject was of tremendous public interest because of concerns at the time about the likely use of chemical warfare in that conflict. The film, which recently re-screened on ABC-TV in Australia, has received a tremendous response from audiences around the world and has inspired many letters and phone calls to television networks - many of which have been redirected to me. These contacts often helped me to seek out further clues that were used in the writing of the book.

Today I would like to discuss methods I used for the film and the book to try to enliven what I could dig up from the archives in Britain, the United States and Australia.

Scientific Reports

By their nature, scientific reports are dispassionate, cold and clinical. They are written by scientists to impress their colleagues and superiors of the power of their logic and the adaptability of their technical prowess when pursuing scientific questions. When I first came upon the scientific reports that were written about the Second World War tropical testing unit I was knocked out by the bald, coolness of these reports. I still remember how I was struck by how analytical and detached they were from the human subjects they were commenting on.

Perhaps I should go back a step or two and explain that I came to this research after speaking to a number of the surviving "experimental subjects". I was at once struck by the hopelessness of their plight and the warmth of their characters. Many of them possessed what I’ve come to know as sardonic, self-deprecating personalities that were typical of their generation. I couldn’t get over how quietly spoken a lot of them were when recounting their experiences. Often this restraint and passivity belied the cruel way they were used by wartime scientific researchers to pursue questions about the offensive and defensive use of chemical weapons.

When I stumbled upon this research I was 26 years old, and was working as a television journalist for ABC-TV’s nightly current affairs program, the 7.30 Report. I had only limited time - a day initially- to put together a television story about an old man who had had his legal assistance rejected by the Legal Aid Commission of Victoria. His case for compensation against the Commonwealth had been stalled by failure to produce evidence of his involvement as a chemical warfare experimental subject in 1944. I became concerned about the vast extent of the story that Tom Mitchell told me about his quest for recognition forty years after the event - but due to government classification of the material his case could not proceed.

It was only the persuasiveness of a journalist accustomed to working under pressure that persuaded Tom to trust me with his story and to tell me of any other people he may know who I could also interview. Tom remembered there was a man in the Victorian town of Bittern, Bill Dunn, he had corresponded with once. I quickly tracked him down and remember being astonished when he mentioned that he had been placed in a gas chamber at Innisfail in 1943 that had been pumped full of mustard gas. Tom Mitchell also told me of another man in northern Victoria who had been a driver in the unit and who had told him that he had been involved in burying bodies at the Atherton cemetery. This man went on camera, but was so nervous about recounting the story he would not allow his face to be seen or his identity to be revealed. I persuaded my producer to give me another day on the story - a costly exercise in a small bureau where reporters are supposed to turn their stories around quickly. I chased another lead of Mitchell’s - this time a pilot known as Rusty Rayson, whom Mitchell had managed to persuade to sign a statutory declaration about his role in a team that dropped mustard gas bombs on Brook Island, near the Barrier Reef, in 1944.

Mitchell told me that films were made of the experiments he had been involved in and suggested I contact the Australian War Memorial. Sure enough there was a film called The Brook Island trials. It was a film with a super title declaring that what followed was "secret", a quaint declaration 44 years on. The film was a boastful documentation of a successful series of trials on the performance of American and British chemical shells on an island, North Brook Island - chosen because of its similarities to small coral islands that were typical in the Pacific Theatre during World War Two. It wasn’t until a few years later that I uncovered further documentation that revealed that the Brook Island trials were specifically designed to simulate the battle for Tarawa - which had seen huge American troop losses when conventional shell bombardment had failed to penetrate Japanese-style fox-holes, or dug-ins.

In this original television story I was intrigued by the contrast between the understated tone of the former chemical warfare unit volunteers and the excessive - as I said earlier, boastful, commentary of the film that had been produced to document the successful scientific exercise. When the story went to air nationally after less than 48 hour's preparation it inspired an astonishing response. I had more mail and telephone messages, directly, and from other state bureaus of the ABC - than I could have thought possible. Most were from people who had also been volunteers and members of the secret chemical warfare unit. I approached Film Victoria with the idea to research the subject further for a documentary and before I knew it I was given a research grant and was on my way to compiling a feature length documentary.

Documentary Archives
In the case of the documentary film, I was very fortunate to enlist the support of two surviving chemical warfare scientists who were familiar with the research and could recount numerous anecdotes about the design of experiments, the Pacific War context and the response from foreign collaborators to the research. They were Jack Legge, a retired reader in biochemistry from Melbourne University, who had been a chemical warfare physiologist and Dr Richard G. Gillis, a retired Defence Department chemist, who had been a junior scientist at the Materials Supply Laboratories at Maribynong, when the unit was undertaking its North Queensland research. Both scientists were passionate about the need for the trials to be fully documented and both declared that they felt that since Australia was a major player in international negotiations for chemical disarmament that we should "come clean" on the details of this wartime research and demonstrate our credibility on that negotiating position. I was fortunate later to have the support of Dr Peter Dunn, who was at the time of my research for the film, the head of the Maribynong Materials Research Laboratory where Dr Gillis had previously been employed. Dr Dunn, until recently a member of the United Nations team that supervised destruction of chemical weapons and undertook inspections, has recently retired from that important work due to ill health. Curiously for Dr Dunn, who had joined the Maribynong establishment in 1950 and retired in 1989, the chemical warfare unit that I have documented was largely a mystery to him for the whole of his Defence Department career until he finally read my book and agreed to write the Foreword. Such was the secrecy of the material that even Defence Department employees immediately following the war did not have access to the wartime research data - much of which still remains classified. Dr Dunn has agreed with Dr Gillis and Jack Legge, that the release of this material can only improve Australia’s negotiating position on the world stage for chemical disarmament.

Immediately following his retirement from the Department of Defence in the mid-1980s, Dr Gillis was commissioned to collect oral history interviews with his former wartime colleagues who had served as scientists in the Department of Defence. It was Dr Dunn who had persuaded the Department to finance the research since he recognised that so many of the wartime scientists were aging and would not have passed on their stories. By the time I found Dr Gillis and approached him for an interview I found an extremely angry old man who was furious that the government had not released his report. With his advice about what it was called and details about where it could be located I applied for the report to be released under Freedom of Information and astonishingly the report was released. It was quietly tabled in parliament in 1988 and passed unnoticed by the media.

Buoyed by this success, Dr Gillis agreed to assist me in my continuing research and suggested to me that I could request a film that he told me they used to screen in the Defence Department. It was a classified film - in early colour - that had been made to document the course of injuries of mustard gas volunteers during the unit’s research. After one unsuccessful attempt under FOI, Dr Gillis corrected my titling of the film and said, "We used to call it the Stan Adams Gas Casualty Film", after Stan Adams, who was the official unit photographer. Amazingly I was summoned to the Maribynong offices of the Department of Defence to view the film I requested. I was amazed to see colour footage of slouch-hatted Australian soldiers marching with their shirt sleeves rolled up around the purpose-built stainless steel gas chamber that had been described to me by Jack Legge. It was largely this film that I used in the production of the documentary film, Keen As Mustard.

Humanising Effects of Post-Production

In film terms the Stan Adams gas casualty film was a graphic and powerful illustration of the extent to which the experimenters carried their research, and like the Brook Island film that I had used earlier from the War Memorial, carried some amazing treasures of narration. However, it was produced in a fairly primitive way with very little if any natural sound - that is sound other than voice-over and jingoistic musical accompaniment.

When I was compiling the documentary with the editor, Tony Stevens, I decided to match the interviews with the unit scientific staff and volunteers with the footage in a way that would maximise the power of the story. I wanted to do whatever I could in post-production to increase the emotional power and evocative nature of the stories that the interviewees told - but in a way that would increase the audience’s interest and empathy, without overloading them with tabloid, overstated declarations about the inhumanity of the experiments.

I suggested we get a woman to sing the Road To Gundagai to match what one of the volunteers recounted about how the women in the unit on gas chamber duty would sing to the volunteers in the gas chamber to help them pass the time. At the same time we had to create sound effects of feet marching in a metallic chamber and all the natural sound effects that you would expect to hear in this situation but which weren’t on the original film because it contained no natural sound. We spent a considerable time - about a week in sound post-production alone, using a foley artist, a sound engineer who specialises in recreating sounds in a sound studio, and mixing the song in sound post production so that it would sound like it was being sung in an echoey metal gas chamber. For me the result is quite powerful and I think maximises the impact of the interviewees’ stories.

I’d like to add here that I was also significantly assisted in the production of this film by the fact that Jack Legge knew the whereabouts of the family of the official photographer, Stan Adams. It turned out that Stan Adams had long since died of major respiratory problems since his wartime work meant that he was continually filming in gas chambers and in mustard-gas bombed rainforest to collect scientific documentation on the trials. Despite the secrecy, Adams had kept several films and photographs which he produced when he was laughed at by doctors in his own efforts to seek adequate repatriation payments. He was given a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated pension after offering films and photographs as proof of his wartime involvement in a secret chemical warfare unit. His family handed over the material to me without question when I told them I was trying to document the unit. They said that Dad had used this material to help himself to get a pension and that if they could be used to help anybody else I was welcome to them. Indeed the Stan Adams collection of films and photographs was used extensively in the documentary and the book. I have now donated this material to the Australian War Memorial.

Documents - Elusive Evidence

The elusiveness of the evidence I was searching for proved to be a major inhibiting factor. One of the first things I did when I discovered the collection of scientific reports that were partially declassified in the Australian Archives was to apply through Archival Accession to have the lot declassified - this proved to be an ambitious and optimistic expectation. The process was extremely slow and relatively unsuccessful. It wasn’t until 1992 that I was told by an archivist at the Australian War Memorial that a lot of the files I had been chasing since 1987 were finally being released into the War Memorial’s Archive. It is difficult to estimate how many more files remain classified, but my estimate is that a significant proportion - possibly a third of the documentation on these trials - is still being withheld by the Australian Department of Defence.

I was fortunate to acquire a collection of these classified scientific reports during research overseas. It was the use of these previously hidden reports that enabled me to fill in a number of missing gaps that the restriction of material had placed upon my research.

When I found that many of the reports on these chemical warfare tests were still classified I was further inspired to press on. It was astonishing to open up a manila folder and discover that most of the file was in a special sealed section. Since these sealed sections carried threatening messages of federal legal reprisals if the researcher tried to open them I had to resist the temptation. Perhaps it was the clandestine nature of these sealed files that inspired me to search even further. I became convinced that I had only touched the tip of the ice-berg on this story - and that the remaining nine-tenths was enclosed in either classified files or the soon to become familiar sealed sections.

It had always been my intention to recount the narrative in a very character-driven way so that a general readership would find the characters compelling as I did. However, when so many gaps existed in official documentation because of the classification of the material, I had to be very resourceful about filling in the gaps and I believe that the additional use of oral history interviews, and personal documentation really added to the human component of the story.


With time I became familiar with the personalities of the people that were involved in the unit. From what was available in the Australian Archives open access documents on these experiments I began to get a strong picture of the man who I later came to understand was the main force behind the Australian trials, Major, later Colonel Freddie Gorrill. When I came to write the book I felt it was important to try to bring this character to life as much as I could. I got a very strong sense of him from the clear and precisely argued tone of his scientific reports and the urgent note that came through in his correspondence to superiors at the British chemical warfare unit at Porton, England. I made it my business to ask as many of his colleagues as I could to tell me anecdotes about him and to describe his personality to me. I came up with a very clear character and eventually described him in this way.


In August 1942 a slightly built, but charismatically forceful man arrived in Australia with the purpose of bringing British knowledge of how to treat chemical weapons casualties. Of Cornish origin, Major F. S. Gorrill, (Freddie) was a chemistry major, who had also graduated in medicine prior to joining the British Royal Medical Corps. He was a slender man, with a slightly forward leaning posture and a way of peering intensely through his small round spectacles towards whomever he engaged in conversation. He had short cropped dark hair and sported a prominent moustache on his thin face. Gorrill's personality was tremendously influential in the shape and direction of the work that followed. He was enormously well liked by the people that worked closely with him, even though at times he was an extremely hard task-master. His powers of persuasion have been described by many of his associates as astonishing, as was his ability to inspire strong teamwork, high morale and loyalty. Dissenting opinions about Gorrill are few, and include the criticism that Gorrill was an egocentric extremist whose obsession with waging full-scale scientific trials was based on intense personal ambition.

Oral History

Stylistically I became very conscious of the contrast between Gorrill’s clipped, English scientific reports and the vernacular descriptions by volunteers and by scientists. I made a decision early on to set these styles alongside each other because of the striking effect it had of a) reinforcing the vernacular descriptions with scientific documentation and b) of underscoring the cool detachment of the experimenters and what becomes obvious as their disturbing lack of concern for the welfare of their human subjects.

Les Freestone, 19, also regarded volunteering as being part of his war effort. He was ignorant of the effects of gas and considered any possible risk as being part of his duty to his country.

The reason why I volunteered for the experiment was, well, I'd already volunteered for the AIF and I thought it was part of my duty to the country to carry on with any experiments that might be required of me. I knew nothing about gas. I had no idea as to what would or could happen, but I knew when we were told that physically we could be harmed, well I knew there must have been some risk attached to it. We were told at some stage that the reason why the experiment was being conducted was to see what the effects of gas would be in the humid jungles of the tropics. That's why the heat was made so high in the gas chamber.[1]
Freestone remembers the attention he was given by Gorrill during his hospitalisation. He had presumed, like many of the volunteers, that a British doctor could be trusted not to inflict irreversible harm on them when he exposed the volunteers to mustard gas in the chamber at Mango Avenue. Indeed, Freestone was flattered by the praise Gorrill offered him for being involved in the trial.
One fellow, I wouldn't have a clue of his name, but as far as I can recall he was this English Major and he was a doctor, and when they'd measured the size of the blisters and that on us he said to me one day, ‘You know you'll get nothing out of this.’ But he said, ‘Your names are going every day to the War Office in London with the result of all these experiments’. Well I said, you know, we didn't expect anything out of it anyway. I was only young at the time, but I probably was of the opinion that he [the British Major] would be an experienced man with gases.[2]
Les Freestone was paid five pounds for his involvement in the experiment. He does not recall signing any document, but clearly remembers being told the experiments were secret and not to discuss them with anybody.

The injuries sustained by volunteers in Gorrill's Townsville trial were far more severe than Gorrill had anticipated. The results challenged his understanding of what should have occurred, according to existing British knowledge of the behaviour of chemical weapons. By March, 1943, Gorrill had experimented sufficiently with volunteers like Ron Dean and Les Freestone to reach some important conclusions about the way human skin responded to mustard gas and lewisite in the sweltering heat of north Queensland. Gorrill reported that casualties were produced with roughly one-quarter the dose required under temperate conditions.

With moderate doses, the rate of onset of symptoms was greatly accelerated; casualties developed in one to three hours...definite disabilities resulted from the smallest dose investigated.

Responsibility to Science

As a non-scientist I was very aware from the outset that I was not equipped to interpret scientific reports. So I did three things. Firstly I got the scientists themselves to explain key issues to me in layman’s terms and secondly I faithfully reproduced sections of the reports that I felt gave technical explanations that people would want to know. Thirdly, I referenced and cross-referenced the scientific reports that I cited and where I could included in the footnotes and in the appendices as many names of volunteers as I could find.

The explanation by scientists helped me to recount the stories of their scientific pursuits and the rationale for those experiments as they then applied to the Pacific War context. In addition these oral accounts often were themselves fascinating and humanising accounts of just how raw the scientific research was.

After receiving a telephone call at Innisfail late one evening reporting that the members of the uniform trial had become seriously ill, Sinclair, Legge and Ennor took a unit jeep and drove the windy road from Innisfail to Dead Man’s Creek. Legge and Ennor had already suspected that under extreme tropical conditions the standard British protective chemical might degrade into aniline, a chemical found in dye. When the scientists arrived late that evening their worst suspicions were realised. Legge examined their earlobes with a hand spectroscope and took some blood. After carrying out some hasty analysis he determined that indeed the men were suffering from aniline poisoning. The spectroscopic examinations of the mens' ear-lobes revealed the presence of methaemoglobin in the blood of the most severely effected cases. The scientists immediately stopped the uniform wearing trial and Sinclair apologised to them all, saying this outcome was completely unexpected, in view of numerous wearing trials in India and elsewhere.

Subsequently the scientists realised that they themselves had been subjected to this cyanosis after wearing AV impregnated clothing after six hours of working in mustard experiments in the jungle. Curiously, the experimenters themselves had commented upon each other's cyanotic appearance at the end of each day’s testing, when wearing the offending AV impregnated uniforms. They had not, however, made the connection until the Dead Man's Creek episode. After that they changed to wearing American clothing and found that although it was uncomfortable the cyanosis disappeared.

More Personalising Input

When frustrating gaps appeared in the material I found that I relied heavily on oral history accounts of what occurred at critical times. One boon to my research was the discovery that one of the women who’d been a laboratory assistant in the unit, Sylvia Stoltz, had been a meticulous diarist. When documents about the details of the Brook Island trials evaded me I resorted to Sylvia’s diary, which was very enlightening from the point of view of dates and the design of experiments, but was also peppered with graphic personal accounts of the trials.

Participants of the first Brook Island trial set sail from their Innisfail headquarters in four landing barges along the Johnstone River and out to sea early on the morning of January 18, 1944. Scientific officers, their assistants and general support staff made camp on South Brook Island. That evening , Sinclair, Skipper and Ennor outlined the programme and emphasised the importance of the trial. Scientific staff and volunteers spent the two following days rehearsing: the first, a plain-clothes reconnaissance and detailed briefing; the second, a dress rehearsal with research staff in full protective clothing traversing the island after American planes (also requisitioned by Skipper from a base at Charters Towers) flew over the island dropping dummy bombs.

After the two rehearsals, Gorrill gathered all the trial participants on the beach and ensured that they thoroughly understood the procedure that was to take place when four tons of real chemical bombs were dropped the next day. Gorrill's passionate commitment to success in the trials was impressed upon the team with a sense of urgency and danger.

The Colonel spoke of the risks of the trial and the necessity for the success of the trial. He was very hard, and said he would sacrifice any one of us who could not take it, rather than spoil the trial.[3]
On January 21 the research team rose early and donned their full double-layer of protective clothing. Their attire included respirators, rubber gloves, cotton gloves, capes, hoods, boots, and gaiters. They boarded the landing barges and prepared for the real bombing raid. This time the team sent in 25 volunteers wearing only respirators and ordinary battle dress. They were instructed to traverse the island and locate equipment assigned to them. This testing equipment included Porton bubblers or injectors, devices designed to extract chemicals from the air in order to determine their concentration. Animals, including goats and guinea pigs, were strategically placed in the target circle of the island in order to receive the maximum exposure after the bombs had reached their target.

The trial proved to be very physically and emotionally demanding for the scientific staff and the volunteers as Gorrill drilled them repeatedly in the importance of their respective tasks. The strain of the previous two days of intensive rehearsal was felt by the trial participants as they waited in barges off North Brook Island for the mustard gas bombs to be dropped.

We were all feeling very tired and worked up inside. I felt particularly weak and to make things worse came very close to being seasick. The sea was very choppy, and as the planes were late we had to just wait drifting for quite a while, the motion of the barge, together with the awful feeling of waking and wondering what was ahead was getting too much for me. We landed once to pick up those who had stayed on all night to turn on the injectors, and getting off, sitting in the wind and the light rain, refreshed me considerably. We went back out to sea and eventually the planes came over and dropped their 120 bombs, about four tonnes of mustard.[4]


When the absence of documentation prevented me from reporting on the plight of volunteers after the trial I was occasionally assisted by the accounts of surviving relatives. Quite often I could trace the experience of individual volunteers from oral history accounts of their experiences, matched alongside whatever documents I could access that had details of volunteers’ names.

In the case of Ronald Clifford Miller, I was able to piece his story together after I contacted his brother, who had written to me in 1988, sending his brother’s photograph and service number and a brief explanation of how he had died in a nursing home some years before. I contacted Miller’s brother and was able to piece together this account:

Miller’s Story

To determine how soon after a chemical attack, troops could safely occupy the island, volunteers were exposed to the dangers of liquid mustard by traversing the island. The experimenters' results were assessed in terms of injuries to animals, the concentrations achieved and the burns sustained by volunteers. There is evidence that some volunteers were seriously injured when they entered the contaminated island unprotected, two days after the bombs had been dropped. A scientific team wearing double layers of protective clothing, respirators and other protective equipment went onto the island 48 hours after the bombing to plot the fall of bombs. They were accompanied by four volunteers, Privates Miller, Knapp, Liston and Graham. The men wore "ordinary summer dress" with their sleeves rolled up above the elbows. They took part in this traversal for three hours and twenty minutes. Five hours later they developed erythematous areas, or redness, on the arms and forearms, with one volunteer showing such symptoms on the face. All were hospitalised 24 hours later with severe vesication of the arms, hands, legs and feet. Three of the men were classified as class A casualties, "incapable of remaining in the field regardless of the seriousness of the military situation." Subjects in this category included volunteers with severe systemic effects, severe burns to the arms and hands and loss or serious impairment of vision. One of the three remained in this category for eight weeks, another for 30 days and the third for 17 days. The remaining volunteer was categorised as class B for 22 days, or "unable to take part in offensive operations" even though he could contribute "materially to the defence of a static position."

Further clinical information is available about these four men in an additional report by Sinclair. Outlining the extent and severity of the burns suffered by four volunteers, Sinclair wrote that on admission to hospital all four men showed extensive vesication of both forearms, extending from the fingers to above the elbow. In addition, Case No. 4 suffered vesication of the whole of both legs and feet and also two large burns, one on the chest and the other on the left shoulder. The blisters on the limbs in all cases practically ran together. The extent of the burns could only be evaluated after several days. Most of the lesions were of first degree intensity, with second and third degree burns present in restricted areas.

After outlining the surface area of blistering covering the four men, Sinclair wrote:

It should be noted that, at the time of exposure, none of the subjects wore a respirator, and, though the vapour concentration to which they were exposed was low, it was sufficient to produce definite conjunctival [inflammation of the eye's mucous membrane] injection in all subjects, accompanied by a sore throat and a mild degree of tracheitis [inflamed windpipe].[5]
Sinclair was concerned that since the men were not wearing respirators, and had been exposed to enough mustard gas to cause tracheitis, that they may also develop serious respiratory complications. He therefore arranged immediately for them to be treated with oral sulphathiazole, or antibiotic therapy. This was discontinued after two days when it became apparent that respiratory problems would not develop. The only other treatment Sinclair felt was appropriate was to administer fluids and morphia as required with topical applications of sulphanilamide, or antibiotic ointment, on some of the burned areas.

All the volunteers displayed classic signs of extensive systemic injury. All four suffered violent nausea for the first 24 hours after their exposure. They also experienced severe headaches, anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. Anorexia, or loss of appetite, was a prominent feature in all four casualties. Their appetites returned gradually, over a period of several days. All four men lost weight, with the fourth man, who Sinclair noted was "clinically the most severely effected," losing 22 pounds during the first 10 days in hospital. He subsequently regained all but five pounds by the time he was discharged. Another systemic indication was the altered structure of the volunteers' blood. Sinclair discovered, inadvertently, that "rapid coagulation of the blood became ... obvious and troublesome." For this, he had no explanation.

Sinclair clearly felt that his study of the four volunteers contributed greatly to Allied understanding about the systemic effects of mustard gas poisoning. He was able to determine after a close study of these four badly burned men that there was much evidence to show that mustard gas was absorbed through the skin and carried to all major organs in the body. This theory was served by the evidence of extensive systemic poisoning that occurred amongst mustard gas casualties in these tropical experiments.

One of the volunteers was Ronald Clifford Miller, 26, a timber-cutter and butcher who had worked in the New South Wales town of Dorrigo prior to joining the Army. The eldest of eight children, Miller's family were farming near the New South Wales town of Gloucester. Miller's experiences on Brook Island are documented in two reports which are still largely classified; however, it is recorded that he was hospitalised for 40 days after the trial and was disabled for 14 weeks. During this time he suffered "nausea and extensive vesication". After his long convalescence in Queensland, Miller was sent home to his family for 14 days rest before going back into action in New Guinea. His family met him at the station and were amazed at how incredibly weak he was when they had to help him off the train. Their brother was emaciated and covered with scars and blisters, which were still evident by the end of his leave. During this time all of his teeth fell out and he had to be fitted with a false set.


I wanted this book to be read widely and appreciated for its powerful human drama as well as an academic history. I relied heavily on science archives - but because of the nature of the material I had to be resourceful about filling in the gaps with whatever additional material I could gather. It's my belief that the intercutting of scientific reports alongside powerful Australian vernacular speech is one of the reasons that the book has succeeded in drawing readers into the human side of this scientific research. As with the production of the film, I wanted to maximise the evocative power of the narrative as much as possible rather than leave it as what Manning Clark would call a "dryasdust" account that would be technically worthy but unattractive to a wide audience because of its clinical lack of concern for the human characters that had been involved in what I believe was a very complex and dramatic piece of Australia’s wartime history.

[1] Bridget Goodwin, Keen as Mustard: Britain’s Horrific Chemical Warfare Experiments in Australia, UQP, St Lucia, 1998, p. 96.
[2] ibid, p. 100.
[3] ibid, p. 134.
[4] ibid, p. 135.
[5] ibid, p. 140.

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Date modified: 7 October 1999