Eric Voice

Chemist who volunteered as a guinea pig
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The Independent Online

Eric Voice believed that the public acceptance of plutonium was essential, because the need for energy meant that the world's supply of plutonium would inevitably increase as nuclear power generation increased.

Eric Voice, nuclear chemist: born London 2 June 1924; research biochemist, UKAEA Harwell 1945-56; Experimental Officer, UKAEA Dounreay 1956-61, Senior Experimental Officer 1959-1961, Principal Scientific Officer 1974-84; Principal Scientific Officer, UKAEA Winfrith 1961-74; married 1950 Joan Lane (two sons, one daughter); died Thurso, Caithness 11 September 2004.

Eric Voice believed that the public acceptance of plutonium was essential, because the need for energy meant that the world's supply of plutonium would inevitably increase as nuclear power generation increased.

He also believed that the inhalation of plutonium as a result of nuclear war or a nuclear accident was an uncharted area of human medicine. He took the view that lack of knowledge over how plutonium affected metabolism was a gap that medical science needed to fill. "We should know how plutonium is likely to affect us" was a constant refrain. Voice believed that no one had ever been harmed by having absorbed plutonium and he thought the notion that plutonium was "the most lethal substance in the universe" was balderdash.

Many have held these views. Few have been prepared to put them to the personal test. Voice made up his mind in 1992 that he would prove what he believed in a most dramatic and personal way. He volunteered to be a human guinea pig at the Atomic Energy Authority laboratory in Harwell in an experiment that was sanctioned by the National Radiological Protection Board, with help from European Union funding.

At Harwell he was injected with plutonium 237, 20,000 becquerels of plutonium citrate, in a special experiment using plutonium produced by the Dubna research laboratory north of Moscow. Voice told me that he believed that this was the purest form of plutonium anywhere in the world. The results were monitored, as plutonium 237 has a half-life of 45 days. No harm came to Voice.

In later experiments he and other volunteers inhaled trace amounts of plutonium isotopes and in 1999 it was announced that all those who had taken part in the tests had remained healthy. Nuclear scientists were in no doubt about the value of the experiment conducted. Alas, by sections of the national press, it was portrayed as a gimmick.

Voice had a lifetime of service to the nuclear industry. The son of a bank clerk, he was born in London and educated at Goudhurst School in Kent, from where he went to be a research chemist with Boots of Nottingham. In 1945 he was struck on the Road to Damascus and decided to devote his life to promoting civil nuclear power, though he was a supporter of Bertrand Russell and one of his heroes, Canon John Collins, in their Aldermaston marches against nuclear weapons.

In 1956 he went to the infant Dounreay site, which then was Nissen huts on the inhospitable Caithness coast, as an experimental officer. Promoted to senior experimental officer in 1959, he moved two years later in March 1961 to become a principal scientific officer at Winfrith in Dorset. (It was here that I first met him when he was one of the company assembled by Sir William Penny, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, who liked to take interested MPs on a conducted tour of his sites.)

In 1974 Voice returned to Dounreay, where he became prominent in forging links with his Russian colleagues. Although he didn't trumpet it abroad, I know for certain, and so does Stephen Benn, his lifelong supporter in the Royal Society of Chemistry, that he was generous in giving some of his own money to enable Russian scientists to come to Britain under the auspices of the Royal Society of Chemistry. At international conferences Voice made distinguished contributions on subjects such as the lessons of Chernobyl.

He and his supportive wife, Jane, made a notable contribution to life in the north-east corner of Scotland. I vividly remember, once, having promised him a copy of the previous day's Hansard and having forgotten his address, I simply asked the Parliamentary Vote Office to send it to Voice, Thurso. It arrived the following day.

Everybody in the nuclear community in Scotland had a soft spot for this remarkable man, who was forever telling us the truth, however unpalatable it might be to those who took refuge in political slogans.

Tam Dalyell