Sniff for safety's sake

Suffer and Survive
October 12, 2007

It is difficult to write a biography of an individual Haldane. The clan was so distinguished, with intelligent men and clever, long-lived women, that family members keep popping up as actors in their own right. The subject of this biography, John Scott Haldane (1860-1936) is not as well-known as either of his two children, J. B. S. Haldane and Naomi Mitchison, or his brother Richard, the liberal politician and philosopher. His uncle John Burden Sanderson (1828-1905) ended his career as regius professor of medicine at Oxford University. Surprisingly, this work is the first full-length biography of J. S. Haldane, a physiologist of formidable reputation in his own lifetime.

The range of Haldane's scientific interests is indicated by the volume's long subtitle. Throughout his life, he sought to put his research to practical ends. A conventional career as a practising doctor never interested him; had not the chance of a research career presented itself, he would probably have become a medical officer of health. His earliest work involved analysing the gases that emanated from the sewers of Dundee, and his uncle's connections with Oxford soon led to his academic appointment to the physiology department there.

Although he remained in Oxford for the rest of his life, he always seemed more at home in his native Scotland. Haldane never got the physiology chair in Oxford that he wanted and probably deserved, but which would have made him miserable. He was an inspiring teacher, but he hated administration and was happiest with his respiratory research, much of it carried out in a laboratory in his Oxford home.

An inveterate self-experimenter, Haldane thought nothing of collecting the gases himself, wherever they needed to be gathered. Thus, he descended deep into mines to investigate mining accidents, ascended heights to experience breathing conditions at high altitudes (Pike's Peak), and dashed in to examine the causes of gas explosions in domestic and industrial locations.

Once collected, the gases he obtained were almost invariably tested on himself. Haldane spent hours in a specially constructed sealed chamber, where the conditions could be carefully monitored and the physiological responses recorded. An ingenious technician, he gave his name to several pieces of equipment, some concerned with science and some with safety. He felt great affinity with working people and was a tireless advocate of safety in the workplace, whether that was down a mine, in a submarine, airplane or diver's suit, or a tunnel under construction.

Haldane seems to have been a man without guile who commanded affection from his colleagues and students, as well as from this biographer. Martin Goodman offers us a rounded portrait that does justice to both Haldane the man and Haldane the scientist. Goodman's own website emphasises his credentials as a mystic, poet, novelist and teacher of creative writing, which makes Haldane seem an odd choice of subject. Nevertheless, Goodman clearly empathises with Haldane and narrates the various scientific debates in which Haldane was involved from Haldane's side.

This biography flows easily along, and the chapters on Haldane's researches on nerve gas and the other barbaric innovations of the First World War are particularly moving. Goodman has made good use of a variety of archival as well as the standard printed sources.

At the same time, it is sometimes easy to think one is reading a novel: Goodman's imagined dialogues are unnecessary in a serious study of a complex and creative scientist. He should have trusted his own descriptive powers, rather than inventing scenes and conversations without documentary evidence.

W. F. Bynum is professor emeritus of the history of medicine, University College London.

Suffer and Survive: The Extreme Life of Dr J. S. Haldane

Author - Martin Goodman
Publisher - Simon and Schuster
Pages - 432
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 9780743285971

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