SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Understanding biological disarmament: The historical context of the origins of the biological weapon

Outlawing an entire class of weapons is a major step towards creating a safer world. On 10 April 1972, the first ever such step was taken as the nations of the world were invited to sign up to the new Biological Weapons Convention. Currently, 170 nations are states parties to the Convention on Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons.

Despite its significance, there is surprisingly little scholarly research on the origins of the Biological Weapons Convention, still less on how this treaty was shaped by its broader political and social context - how did the context of society at a given time shape policy decisions? And how did policymakers shape society?


This project with Dr Caitríona McLeish, SPRU, aims to go beyond a blow-by-blow account of the technicalities of arms treaty negotiation, and instead provide a deep historical account of the birth of the treaty. The study will seek to write the Biological Weapons Convention into the historiography of the Cold War and, in particular, the period of détente. 


A wide range of documents including those of the UK and US governments will be analysed.  In addition, we will interview people who were involved directly or indirectly in the biological disarmament process, (approximately 10-12 people are still alive) to provide contextual information. To supplement these interviews, first-hand accounts will be gathered through a ‘witness seminar’.  Here, a mixed group of academics, practitioners and ‘witnesses’ will be presented with the preliminary findings of the historical research and invited to offer their perspectives. 


The research will be of value to academic historians, political scientists, science and technology studies scholars, and sociologists. Initial research outputs will be ready for the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological Weapons Convention (2015) and annual meetings in Geneva following the Biological Weapons Convention’s Seventh Review Conference. 

Through a series of public events, it is intended to demonstrate how this research will be relevant to users outside the academic community, particularly those concerned with the development of effective policy approaches to the threat posed by biological weapons such as civil servants, the security community, policy-makers, NGO workers and campaigners.

Partners and Links

This is a 3 year project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). 

Prof. Brian Balmer in the UCL Science & Technology Studies Department is the Principal Investigator.

Dr Caitríona McLeish at the Harvard-Sussex Program (HSP), SPRU - Science & Technology Policy Research Unit is the Co-Investigator.

Dr Alex Spelling in  UCL Science & Technology Studies Department is the postdoctoral Research Associate on the project.

See also

History of Chemical and biological weapons programmes