Biography of Joseph Barcroft
Sir Joseph Barcroft was a British physiologist best known for his studies of the oxygenation of blood. He was the second of five children born to Henry and Anna Bancroft, Quakers originally from Lancashire. His father worked in textiles (linen) and became deputy lieutenant of County Down and High Sheriff of County Armagh.
to school at Bootham, the Friend's School at York, and then the Leys School,
Cambridge. While still a schoolboy he was awarded a BSc (London, 1891). He
opted for a career in physiology and entered King’s College Cambridge as an
exhibitioner. He received his degree in natural sciences (BA) in 1896 and
immediately began his studies of haemoglobin. He was made a fellow of King’s in
1899 and that year also won the Walshingham Medal for biological research.
In 1900 he was appointed to a lectureship in natural science at King’s, a post he held for 25 years. Between 1902 and 1905 he was a Governor of Leighton Park School, the Quaker School in Reading.
In May, 1910 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and shared the Gedge Prize for physiological research with Henry Hallett Dale (1875-1968). He was awarded the Royal Medal in 1922 and the Copley medal in 1943. He would also deliver the Croonian Lecture in 1935.
Barcroft also studied the physiology of oxygenation at extreme altitudes, and for this purpose he organized expeditions to the peak of Tenerife (1910), to Monte Rosa (1911), and to the Peruvian Andes (1922).
During the Great War he worked as civilian chief physiologist at the government's chemical warfare station, Porton near Salisbury. In the course of his research, he did not hesitate to use himself as a test subject. For example, during the First World War, when he was called to Royal Engineers Experimental Station (near Salisbury) to carry out experiments on asphyxiating gas, he exposed himself to an atmosphere of poisonous hydrogen cyanide. On another occasion he remained for seven days in a glass chamber in order to calculate the minimum quantity of oxygen required for the survival of the human organism, and another time he exposed himself to such a low temperature that he collapsed into unconsciousness. In 1918 he was awarded the CBE for his services.
Barcroft returned to Cambridge in 1919 as reader in physiology, working on the circulation, the distribution of blood, its storage and release by organs such as the spleen, and on the various causes of anoxaemia. In 1922 he led an Anglo–American expedition to the Peruvian Andes. Mount Barcroft in California was named after him. This period of his life culminated in the publication of another classic text on the architecture of physiological function (1934).
From 1925 to 1937 he held the chair of physiology at Cambridge. His final research, begun in 1933, concerned foetal respiration.
Meanwhile many honours came his way: president of the physiological section of the British Association (1920), medal of the Royal Society (1922), the Fullerton Professorship of the Royal Institution (1922), the chair of physiology at Cambridge (1925) and honorary doctorates from six universities in Europe and North America. In 1935 he received a knighthood (fig1).
During the first years of the Second World War he was again summoned to Porton Down to consult on chemical weapons
P. M. Dunn:
Sir Joseph Barcroft of Cambridge (1872-1947) and prenatal research.
Archives of Disease in Childhood - Fetal and Neonatal Edition, January 2000, 82 (1): F75–F76.