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John Scott Haldane

Born  1860-05-03
Died  1936-03-15

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    British physiologist and philosopher, born May 3, 1860, Edinburgh; died during the night of March 14/15, 1936, Oxford.

    Biography of John Scott Haldane

    John Scott Haldane is chiefly noted for his elucidation of gas exchange during respiration. He did important studies on problems related to coal mining, and developed several procedures for studying the physiology of breathing and the physiology of the blood. Among his most widely used devices were the haemoglobinometer, an apparatus for the analysis of mixtures of gases.

     John Scott Haldane was a member of the Cloan branch of the centuries-old Haldane family of Gleneagles. He was the son of Robert Haldane and the grandson of the Scottish evangelist James Alexander Haldane (1768-1851). His mother was Mary Elizabeth Burdon-Sanderson, the daughter of Richard Burdon-Sanderson and the granddaughter of Sir Thomas Burdon. His maternal uncle was the physiologist John Scott Burdon-Sanderson. He was the brother of Elizabeth Haldane, William Stowell Haldane and Richard Burdon Haldane, 1st Viscount Haldane, and the father of the geneticist and physiologist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane.

     John Scott Haldane is revered for his key advancements in respiratory physiology. Born into an affluent Scottish family, Haldane's father, Robert, worked as a lawyer and writer to the signet of Edinburgh, and his older brother Richard Burdon was the Viscount Haldane of Cloan. His advanced education took place at Edinburgh Academy and Edinburgh University, where he received a degree in medicine in 1884. Further education took place at Jena and Berlin.

     In 1891 he married Kathleen Trotter. They had two children, the author Naomi May Margaret Mitchison (1897-1999) and the scientist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964).

     After graduation he was resident physician at the Royal Infirmary. His first research work, on the composition of air in dwellings and schools, was done in Dundee; an account was published in 1887. Soon afterward he joined his uncle at Oxford as demonstrator in physiology, and Oxford was his base for the rest of his life.

     Applying information gained from laboratory studies on the relation between carbon dioxide content of inspired air and respiratory volume, he began work on hazards to which coal miners were subjected. The result was a classical report on the causes of death in mine disaster which laid particular stress on the lethal effects of carbon monoxide. As a result of his inquiry into coal mine disasters, Haldane’s curiosity took him back to the laboratory to establish the exact reasons for the toxicity of carbon monoxide.

     The result was a paper of enormous significance in which he showed that carbon monoxide binds haemoglobin, preventing it from serving as the body’s oxygen carrier, and that the effect can be vitiated by placing the experimental subject (mice) in a hyperbaric environment. The final clinical implications of the work were not appreciated for over half a century.

     Seeing the need for better analytic methods, he devised, in principle, the well-known Haldane gas analysis apparatus in 1898. A few years later, with Joseph Barcroft, he developed a method for determining blood gas content from relatively small amounts of blood. Both are still in use, although the Scholander apparatus has largely replaced the Haldane-Barcroft device for determination of blood gases.

     Haldane’s best-known paper, written with John Gillies Priestly (1879-1941), set forth the view that pulmonary ventilation is controlled by the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in arterial blood reaching the respiratory centre of the midbrain. It appeared in 1905 and, along with his analytic methods, immediately stepped up interest in respiratory physiology. It was probably Haldane’s most influential work, and it is astonishing to note that it, like his work on carbon monoxide poisoning, received very little clinical application until World War II.

     Still influenced by his interest in the intact, integrated human organism under stressful conditions (as in mines and during deep-sea diving), Haldane proceeded to unravel the basic enigmas of heatstroke and caisson disease (bends). He worked out the method for stage compression which is still in use in deep-sea diving operations and in underwater construction.

     At the opposite extreme of the barometric pressure scale, Haldane and colleagues, including several American physiologists, undertook studies on the physiological effects of high altitude by making an expedition to the summit of Pikes Peak (4,302 m) in 1911.

     The practical world of engineering turned often to Haldane for counsel which he, among other basic scientists, was uniquely able to give because of his sympathetic and informed interest in its problems. He was enormously influential in planning safety measures for tunnel construction and mining and diving operations, and in solving ventilation problems in buildings, ships, and submarines. In devising methods for ventilating naval vessels, he was following the eighteenth-century precedent set by one of Britain’s earliest and greatest physiologists, Stephen Hales.

     Haldane invented an apparatus for the accurate measurement of carbon dioxide and oxygen in air.

    With this he showed that in stuffy rooms the carbon dioxide level rises and oxygen falls. He showed that this influenced small animals or birds much faster than in humans, and therefore advocated the use of a canary as a test for carbon monoxide.

     Joseph Barcroft  designed the precursor of the Warburg apparatus, a device for measuring the pressure of a gas at constant volume and constant temperature so that the pressure is a measure of the quantity of gas and changes in pressure reflect the production or absorption of gas.

     Haldane summarized most of his work in the Silliman lectures at Yale (1916), which were published in book form in 1922. A new edition, prepared with Priestly in 1935, was for many years the standard textbook in respiratory physiology. Even a cursory look at the volume suffices to demonstrate the extent to which Haldane and his co-workers, especially Priestly and Claude Gordon Douglas (1882-1963), laid the groundwork for respiratory physiology as it stands today.

     Like his brother, Viscount Haldane, J. S. Haldane had an abiding interest in philosophical topics and wrote extensively on the interface between science and philosophy. What he was grasping for is not easily understood.

     Haldane served on several royal commissions and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1897. He was awarded the Royal Medal in 1916, received the Copley Medal in 1934, and was created a companion of Honour (for work on industrial hygiene) in 1928. He was a fellow of New College, Oxford from 1901 to his death. From 1921 he was also honorary professor and director of the Mining Research Laboratory set up by the mining industry, first near Doncaster and later in Birmingham, connected to the university.

     After 1921 Haldane spent a great deal of time at the Birmingham laboratory. But in the preceding twenty-five years he, probably more than anyone else, had brought the Oxford school of physiology into international prominence.

     An indefatigable worker and a thoroughly gifted scientist, Haldane showed by his example that the competent and committed scientific investigator must sometimes look beyond the laboratory, and that the equilibrium between theoretical and applied science can be a very dynamic and constructive one.

    C. G. Douglas:
    John Scott Haldane, 1860-1936. A short biography.
    Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, December 1936, 2 (2): 115-139.

    Carleton B. Chapman (1915-2000):
    Haldane, John Scott. In: Charles Coulston Gillispie, editor in chief: Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York, 1970.

    C. Acott:
    JS Haldane, JBS Haldane, L Hill, and A Siebe: A brief resume of their lives.
    South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal, volume 29, 1999, 29 (3): 161-165.

    John Scott Haldane Biography (1860-1936)  on

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