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12:18pm Tuesday 30th June 2009 in Profiles
The name John Scott Haldane may not be widely known outside scientific circles, but his revolutionary thinking on respiration had far-reaching effects.
Increased safety in Britain’s mines, relief of altitude sickness and the invention of the gas mask during the First World War are all part of Haldane’s legacy.
The Scottish-born physiologist carried out much of his work in Oxford, where he lived for more than 40 years, and a blue plaque at his former home in Crick Road (above) now celebrates his extraordinary achievements.
He was born in Edinburgh on May 3,1860, one of four children born to Robert Haldane, son of Scottish evangelist James Alexander Haldane, and Mary Elizabeth Burdon-Sanderson. Science and medicine were clearly in his genes, as his maternal uncle was the physiologist John Scott Burdon-Sanderson, known chiefly for his research into diseases such as diphtheria and cholera.
Burdon-Sanderson became the first holder of the Waynflete Chair of Physiology at Oxford in 1882, and attracted controversy for his insistence on experimenting on animals.
After studying at Edinburgh Academy, the young Haldane followed his uncle to Edinburgh University, graduating in medicine in 1884. He also studied for a while at the University of Jena in Germany.
is research into the effects of carbon monoxide, the toxic constituent of after-damp, led to his discovery that it affected small birds and animals more quickly than men due to their quicker metabolism. From this he developed the use of canaries in mines as an early warning system – a system that was replaced by the electronic gas detector as recently as 1986.
He moved to Oxford in 1887, when his uncle invited him to be one of his demonstrators at Oxford University. Soon afterwards he started his ground-breaking research into the composition of air in mines and its effects on the human respiratory system. His research into the effects of carbon monoxide, the toxic constituent of after-damp, led to his discovery that it affected small birds and animals more quickly than men due to their quicker metabolism. From this he developed the use of canaries in mines as an early warning system – a system that was replaced by the electronic gas detector as recently as 1986. He also designed respirators for use by rescue workers, and developed the use of the flame safety lamp to detect firedamp.
What was particularly remarkable about Haldane’s research was that he was not afraid to experiment on himself, shutting himself in sealed chambers to record the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning on his own body. His own health inevitably suffered as a result of this altruistic approach.
Haldane was elected a Fellow of New College in 1901, and was a Reader in Physiology at Oxford from 1907 to 1913. During that time he led an expedition to Pike’s Peak, Colorado to study the effects of low atmospheric pressure on the body’s respiratory system and its acclimatization to high altitudes. Shortly afterwards, he was part of a committee appointed by the Admiralty to investigate the causes of caisson disease – popularly known as “the bends” – suffered by deep sea divers. His discovery that the problem was caused by nitrogen bubbles in the blood, and his development of the “stage decompression” method of bringing divers to the surface, eliminated the disease, and made deep sea salvage operations possible.
When the Germans added lethal gases to their armoury in the First World War, Haldane spent time out on the Front – at the request of the Secretary of State for War – to identify the gases and determine their effects. This led to his development of an emergency respirator, and eventually a box respirator which became standard Government issue.
Haldane’s expertise was recognised with a number of awards, honorary degrees and professorships, and various prestigious appointments, including Fellow of the Royal Society, member of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society of Medicine, and was created Companion of Honour in 1928. He married Louisa Kathleen Trotter in 1891, and the couple moved into 11 Crick Road, off the Banbury Road, where they lived for eight years. In 1899 they moved to a larger house, Cherwell, in Linton Road, which included a private laboratory, and which was absorbed into Wolfson College in the 1960s. Their son, John, also became an eminent scientist, while their daughter, Naomi, became a celebrated author.
Haldane died at his Oxford home at midnight on March 14th/15th, aged 75, after contracting bronchial pneumonia. Funerals were held on successive days at Golders Green and Gleneagles Chapel, Auchterarder, followed by a memorial service at New College, Oxford.