UCL News


Bubonic plague threat uncovered

12 October 2005

New UCL research has discovered that the UK may have come perilously close to an outbreak of bubonic plague in the 1950s.

Dr Brian Balmer (Science & Technology Studies) has unearthed Ministry of Defence documents which describe how a fishing trawler inadvertently entered a test area shortly after a bomb carrying bubonic plague had been detonated.

The fishing vessel Carella had stumbled upon the final days of a series of sea trials codenamed Operation Cauldron, which took place in September 1952. During these trials, animals were placed on rafts and then exposed to clouds of pathogenic micro-organisms - in this case bubonic plague. Despite repeated warnings not to enter the affected area, Carella sailed on, exposing herself to the invisible germs. The navy's response was to shadow the trawler over the following month without informing the crew of their potential fate and instead listen for a distress call.

The primary concern of the navy and government was to keep the trials secret despite the terrible implications of a ship sailing back to England carrying the plague. "The presumption that the sailors would know what illness they had is extraordinary. Would you issue a distress call for something which would initially appear to be a bad cold? The fact that they weren't prepared to intervene straight away says a lot about Cold War secrecy and paranoia", explains Dr Balmer.

Luckily none of the sailors contracted the disease and knew nothing about the danger they were in until now. Even now the truth is out researching the incident has proved difficult, since it was deemed so sensitive that almost all records of its occurrence were burnt and the only remaining file - discovered by Dr Balmer - was locked within the Ministry of Defence for 50 years.

Such trials were common between 1949-1955 and took place either off the coast of Scotland or in the Bahamas. Dr Balmer said: "Biological weapons were seen as the equivalent of atomic weapons in terms of their strategic importance. Chemical weapons had been used before, as had the atomic bomb, but at the time there was no known use of biological weapons and their development was taken very seriously. Biological weapons were seen as a weapon in their own right to be used strategically in conjunction with atomic weapons."

The trials came to an end in 1955 as Britain moved to a defensive biological warfare policy and acquired an independent nuclear capability, partly because of the relative lack of success of biological testing, and partly because of increasing financial restraints. Biological weapons testing was further discredited in 1969 when the United States unilaterally denounced their use, ahead of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention which banned them from everything but defensive research.

Dr Balmer will discuss the incident on the BBC 4 Programme, 'Cold War, Dirty Science' to be broadcast on 19 October 2005.