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J. S. Haldane (1860-1936) was an...

Posted Sep 11 2008 7:09pm

J. S. Haldane (1860-1936) was an English physiologist. (The better-known J. B. S. Haldane, a geneticist, is his son.)

He believed that there was no better experimental subject than the scientist himself. . . . Routinely, the accounts of his experiments involve vomiting, convulsions, trembling, confusion and sometimes memory loss. At one point, experimenting with extremes of low barometric pressure, and after writing ‘very wobbly’ as a self-assessment on a piece of paper, he stared into a hand-mirror to check himself for the blue lips — cyanosis — that would indicate anoxaemia. He did this for a long time. Turned out he was looking at the back rather than the front of the mirror. . . .

When the Germans started experimenting with gas warfare — chlorine at first, and later mustard gas — Haldane led the race to provide effective protection for the troops. (As ever, this involved gassing himself half to death.) . . . Having heard about the gas attacks, Churchill declared blithely: ‘Oh, what you want is what we have in the navy. Smoke helmets or smoke pads, and you make them out of cotton wool or something. You’d better get the Daily Mail to organize the making of a million of them.’

Haldane pointed out that while a pad of cotton wool clamped to the mouth might help a little with smoke inhalation, it wouldn’t offer the slightest protection against chlorine gas. Yet not long afterwards Haldane returned from France to discover the Times reporting that the War Office had appealed for donations of home-made gas-masks from cotton wool or ‘double stockinette’. Haldane, furious, was reassured that this was merely a propaganda exercise, and that the useless masks wouldn’t be dispatched to the Front. Yet, again, not long afterwards 90,000 of them found their way to France — and proved just as much help as Haldane predicted.

Meanwhile, Haldane and his team worked like mad at designing effective respirators, tearing up stockings and shawls and even the young Aldous Huxley’s scarf to make face-masks. The one they came up with went into mass production — but not before Haldane had to point out that the reason the women in the factory were getting their fingers burnt and their rubber gloves dissolved was that they were using caustic soda rather than, as prescribed, carbonate of soda.

From a review of a new biography of Haldane. Another review by Lynn Truss. Biographer’s blog. A third review.

Thanks to Dave Lull.

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