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Haldane, John (Burdon Sanderson)

genetics respiration blood enzyme

(1892–1964) British physiologist and geneticist: showed that enzyme reactions obey laws of thermodynamics.

Haldane is one of the most eccentric figures in modern science. If his life has a theme, it is of bringing talents in one field of work to the solution of problems in quite a different area. He was self-confident, unpredictable and difficult to work with. His family was wealthy and talented, and his father was Britain’s leading physiologist.

The latter (John Scott Haldane, 1860–1936) was led to study death in coalmine disasters and from this to discover how poisoning by carbon monoxide arose; and then to discover the part played by carbon dioxide in controlling breathing. His work on deep sea diving and mountain ascents added to his work on respiration, and with his Oxford pupils he laid the basis of modern respiratory physiology.

His son J B S Haldane went to Eton, where he began to conflict with authority; service in the First World War made him an atheist. He went to Oxford to study mathematics and biology, but graduated in classics and philosophy. From 1910 his interest moved to genetics as a result of studying his sister’s 300 guinea pigs. He began to teach physiology; he knew a good deal about respiration through helping his father and he had also worked on defence against poison gas in the war, but otherwise he had ‘about 6 weeks start on my future pupils’. He researched on respiration and the effect on it of CO2 in the blood. For this he used himself as an experimental animal, changing his blood acidity by consuming NaHCO3 , and by drinking solutions of NH4Cl to get hydrochloric acid into his blood. Later he turned to biochemistry, applying his mathematical ability to calculate the rates of enzyme reactions and giving the first proof that they obey the laws of thermodynamics. Then he turned to genetics, and the mathematics of natural selection and of genetic disease and mutation in man. In 1938 he began work on deaths in submarine disasters and regularly risked his life in experiments on underwater escape.

He wrote on popular science; including over 300 articles in the Daily Worker (he was a Communist as well as the nephew of a viscount). In 1957 he emigrated to India, claiming that this was a protest against the Suez affair but probably because of the opportunity to work on genetics there; as usual, he quarrelled with his colleagues. Dying of cancer, he wrote comic poems about the disease, which inspired praise and offence in their readers in about equal numbers.


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