To many, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane needs no
introduction. ‘However, our aim is to introduce Haldane’s
life and work to younger people and a lay-audience and we feel that
many of them may not be knowing who Haldane was and what he did.
Many of the traits of Haldane’s personality are truly inspiring.
His concerns and views on the development of science and its relationship
with society, the importance of the method of science, education,
welfare of fellow human beings etc., are very much relevant even
today. He spent last five years of his life in India and became
an Indian citizen. Here we have attempted to highlight some aspects
of Haldane’s life and work. For obvious reasons it cannot
be a definitive and comprehensive account.
As a scientist his best known contributions are
in the mathematical theory of evolution. He is one of the founders
of population genetics. He was a polymath in the truest sense. Haldane
was actually interested in almost all the sciences. Besides all
the sciences, he was interested in western classics, Hindu philosophy,
linguistics, Marxism, economics and so on.
He was a man of massive contradictions. While in
science Haldane was the most open minded of men but in politics
he was dogmatism incarnate. He could be the rudest man as well as
the kindest. He was thrifty and never wasted anything. He disliked
formalities and always meant business. He had no liking for social
visits and non-scientific conversations.
J.B.S. Haldane was born in Oxford, England, on
November 5, 1892. Haldane’s family traces it ancestry to the
mid-thirteenth century. His father John Scott Haldane (1860-1936)
was a physiologist, noted for his investigations of human respiration.
He established that the rate of breathing was regulated according
to the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the blood. He also investigated
the effects of high altitude deep-sea pressure on respiration and
improved mine safety by demonstrating toxic effects of carbon monoxide.
His mother Louisa Kathleen Haldane (nee Trotter)
was involved in activities aimed at relieving the “human predicament”.
Haldane was very much influenced by his parents; particularly by
his father. He once observed: “I owe my success very largely
to my father”. Haldane received his initial scientific training
from his father whom he assisted from childhood in the latter’s
private laboratory. Thus he later observed: “I learned much
of my science by apprenticeship, assisting my father from the age
of eight onwards and my university degree is for classics, not for
About his childhood Haldane wrote: ”As a
child I was not brought up in tenets of any religion, but in a household
where science and philosophy took the place of faith. As a boy I
had very free access to contemporary thought, so that I do not to-day
find Einstein unintelligible, or Freud shocking. As a youth I fought
through the war and learned to appreciate sides of human character
with which the ordinary intellectual is not brought into contact.
As a man I am a biologist, and see the world from an angle which
gives me an unaccustomed perspective, but not, I think, a wholly
“At school I deserted “classics”,
that is to say the study of Latin and Greek, at the age of fourteen
and studied chemistry, physics, history, and biology, with my father’s
full backing but to the annoyance of the headmaster, who said I
was becoming “a mere smarter.”
Haldane had a great regard for literature. We are
told that he was fond of Shakespeare (1564-1616); Dante (1265-1321);
Shelly, (1797-1851); Keats (1795-1821); Rimbaud (1854-91) and Balzac
(1799-1850). He also used to read Dostoevsky (1821-81) and Tolstoy
(1828-1910). He was friendly with G.B. Shaw (1856-1950) and H.G.
Wells (1866-1946). He could read eleven languages and make public
speeches in three.
In 1911 he went to Oxford on a mathematics scholarship
and took first-class honours in mathematical moderation. In his
first year at Oxford; he also attended the final honours course
in Zoology. At a seminar for Zoology students in 1911, Haldane announced
his by discovery (based on the analysis of the data published by
others) of the first case of what is now called linkage between
genes in vertebrates. However, his evidence was not adequate and
has had to wait till 1916 to get it published.
Before he could obtain a formal scientific degree,
he had to leave Oxford and join the British army in 1914, as the
First World War (1914-18) broke. On returning to Oxford after the
war, he was elected a Fellow of New College and started teaching
physiology. Besides his teaching assignment he started working on
physiology and genetics.
Haldane’s major contributions to science
were in three different fields, i.e. physiology, biochemistry and
genetics. He studied various aspects of human physiology, often
acting as his own experimental animal. In fact Haldane is noted
for his willingness to serve as “his own chief guinea pig”,
Haldane’s work on regulation of blood alkalinity is basic
In 1922, on invitation from Frederick Gowland Hopkins
(1861-1947), Haldane joined the Cambridge University as Reader in
biochemistry. He spent 10 years there. At Cambridge he concentrated
on the study of enzymes and using some elegant mathematics he calculated
the rate at which enzyme reaction takes place. Haldane (in collaboration
with G.E. Brigs) showed that enzyme reactions obey the laws of thermodynamics.
On his contribution to biochemistry Haldane wrote: “Perhaps
my own most important discovery was that a substance, for which
carbon monoxide competes with oxygen, now called cytochrome oxides,
was found in plant seedling, moths and rats. The most remarkable
thing about this discovery was that I was able to find out a good
deal about a substance in the brain of moths without cutting them
up or killing. However, my enunciation of some of the general laws
of enzyme chemistry may have been more important.”
Haldane is considered as one of the founders of
population genetics. His main genetic discovery at Cambridge was
the rule to determine the sex of the hybrid animal: “The rule
that if one sex in a first generation of hybrids is rare, absent
or sterile, then it is the heterogamatic sex”. In 1933 Haldane
left Cambridge for the University College of London where he was
mostly preoccupied with human genetics. He prepared (1935) a provisional
map of the X chromosome which showed the positions on it of the
genes causing colour blindness, a particular skin disease and two
varieties of eye peculiarity. His work on the mathematical theory
of natural selection is a must for students of genetics and biology.
In 1932, in his book, The Causes of Evolution, Haldane published
the first estimate of a human-mutation rate. Another important contributions
of Haldane to the field of genetics was his work for the Journal
of Genetics, which he edited.
Haldane and A.I. Operin independently suggested
a plausible mechanism for the origin of life in an anaerobic pre-biotic
world. Perhaps the most important aspect of Haldane’s contributions
to science was that he was able to bring to new fields the equipments
and concepts he had acquired in other disciplines.
In Haldane’s own words his scientific contribution
may be summarised as follows: “My scientific work has been
varied. In the field of human physiology I am best known for my
work on the effects of taking large amounts of ammonium chloride
and ether salts. This has had some application in treating lead
and radium poisoning. In the field of genetics I was the first to
discover linkage in mammals, to map a human chromosome, and (with
Penrose) to measure the mutation rate of a human gene. I have also
made some minor discoveries in mathematics”.
Haldane was an outstanding science populariser.
His popular writing was remarkably lucid. He had the ability to
present complicated concepts of science in a simple way without
distorting their meaning. His articles, lectures and broadcasts
made him one of the best known scientists in the world.
He stressed the social responsibilities of science.
Haldane considered it an important duty of a scientist to render
science intelligible to ordinary people. He wrote volumes of essays
explaining science to the layman. To science communicators Haldane
advised: “You are not trying to show off; nor are you aiming
at such accuracy that your readers will be able to carry out some
operation. You want to interest or even excite them, but not to
give them complete information. You must therefore know a very great
deal more about your subject than you put on paper. Out of this
you must choose the items which will make a coherent story. This
does not mean that you must write for an audience of fools. It means
that you must certainly be returning from the unfamiliar facts of
science to those of everyday experience…When you have done
your article, give it to a friend, if possible a fairly ignorant
one. Or put it away for six months and see if you still understand
it yourself. You will probably find that some of the sentences which
seemed simple when you wrote them, now appear very involved. Here
are some hints on combing them out …Can you get in a full
stop instead of a comma or a semi-colon? If so, get in it. It gives
your reader a chance to draw his breath. Can you use an active verb
instead of a passive verb or verbal noun?” He believed that
the non-scientific audience “…. has a right to know
what goes on inside the laboratories, for some of which it pays.”
He was a great advocate of the concept of learning
by doing. For example once he wrote: “A feeling for numbers
can only be acquired by practice. What should the practice be? As
an example I want our students to make a census of all the trees
in the compounds of number 203 and 204 B.T. Road. They will come
up against real difficulties. Is this a tree or bush? Is this one
banana plant or a dozen? This is no harder than deciding what is
a factory or a household. I estimate that there are rather under
100 betel-nut palms in the compound of No. 203. I may be wrong.
I haven’t counted them. But I want our boys and girls to get
the feel of what a hundred trees look like, and constantly to be
asked `How many?’, `How often?’, How powerful ?’
and so on.”
He advised his students to highlight the relation
between abstract scientific concepts and real-life experience, which
he himself did throughout his life. Thus he noted: “You must
constantly be returning from the unfamiliar facts of science to
those of every day experience.”
Haldane’s comments on the then existing educational
system are still worth considering. He observed: “Our present
educational system is unjust to children because the majority of
them don’t get a fair chance and practically none are taught
the truth of science from a human point of view. Science teaching
should begin, not with a mythical body in rest or uniform motion,
but with the human body. Mine did so begin at the age of three.”
“Between different men and women there are
immense inborn differences which no amount of education can overcome.
I do not believe that any training could have made Ramsay MacDonald
into Jack Hobbs, or vice versa. The ideal society would enable every
man and woman to make the best of their inborn possibilities. Hence
it must have two characteristics. First, liberty, which would allow
people to develop along their individual lines, and not attempt
to force all into one mould, however admirable. Second, equality
of opportunity which would mean that, as far as is humanly possible,
every man and woman would be able to obtain the position in society
for which they are best suited by nature. The waste of human beings
under our present system is a far worse evil than any merely economic
J.B.S. Haldane was very much concerned with human
welfare. Being a liberal in his student days at Oxford, he moved
towards left and finally formally joined the Communist Party in
1942. But before this, he wrote The Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences
(1938) and a preface and notes (1940) for translation of Engles’
Dialectics of Nature which had been left uncompleted in 1882. It
seems Haldane was very much impressed by Engles’ views. Thus
he wrote, “Had his (Engles) remarks on Darwinism been greatly
known, I for one would have been saved a certain amount of muddled
thinking.” He had become the Chairman of the editorial board
of the Daily Worker for which he wrote more than 300 articles on
scientific themes often mixed with political comments. He also wrote
more than 100 articles in left-wing papers such as a the Reynolds
News. Haldane became socialist because he wanted to see his fellow
men and women enjoying the advantages, which he himself enjoyed.
His social and political outlook was very much influenced by his
rigidly quantitative approach, his immense knowledge of genetics,
and his sense of duty. Haldane could not agree with the Communist
Party’s total lack of skepticism and moved away from it quietly.
In 1957 Haldane moved to India, ostensibly in protest
against the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. His decision to move
to India was also influenced by the country’s facilities for
research in genetics and biometry. He joined the Indian Statistical
Institute (ISI), Calcutta, at the invitation of P.C. Mahalanobis.
At ISI he gave great impetus to the theoretical and applied research
by initiating several research projects on quantitative biology.
He was also instrumental in formulating (jointly with P.C. Mahalanobis)
the academic programmes for Bachelor of Statistics (Honours) course
at the Institute.
On his association with the Indian Statistical
Institute Haldane observed: “I owe a great deal to this institute
but I undoubtedly owe most is the opportunity it has given me of
making some important discoveries, namely, the discoveries of a
number of younger men than myself, who, I think are in the great
tradition of scientific research.” He resigned from the Indian
Statistical Institute in 1961 and set up a research unit in his
residence with the financial assistance from the Council of Scientific
and Industrial Research and with the cooperation of his several
colleagues. In 1962 he moved to Bhubaneshwar to set-up a Genetics
and Biometry Laboratory.
Haldane had a deep appreciation of the Indian culture
and he wrote extensively on its relations to modern science. He
was deeply engrossed in Indian Philosophy. He had a good knowledge
of Sanskrit. In April 1961 he became an Indian citizen. Commenting
on why Haldane chose to migrate to India, Asit Kumar Bhattacharyya
wrote: “Why did Haldane come to India to settle down permanently?
What led him to become an Indian citizen? He had fought for Britain
in two world wars and never regretted it. Still he always had a
deep aversion for the British establishment and its imperialism—his
conversion to communism in the thirties showed it clearly. However,
the Lysenko affair after the second world war, disenchanted him.
He realized that absolute power wielded by the erstwhile Soviet
State under communism inevitably led to abuse of power. He found
it imperative to distance himself from it. It was at this juncture
that he was drawn to Nehruvian socialism in India. Its rationalist
ethic, based on the deep reverence for life bequeathed by the Hindu-Buddhist
tradition enshrined by Gandhi, appealed to him. So did the wide
tolerance of different life styles and cults in India.
Indeed, he had a profound appreciation of the
Indian culture. His popular articles on the subject relating it
to developments in modern science that came out regularly in The
Hindu and later compiled in the volume Science and Indian Culture
bring it out clearly. The idea of non-attachment to material possessions
appealed to this philosophical materialist. To my mind, his definition
of moksha—the need to go beyond all needs—remains final.
That was the need he felt within and finally renounced much of his
past, leaving his concern for science and humanity as his legacy.”
Haldane wrote on varied subjects. He continued
to write till he died in 1964. He wrote twenty-four books (including
science fiction and stories for children) more than 400 scientific
research papers and innumerable popular articles. On his writings
Haldane wrote: “Besides scientific books I have written a
number of popular works, including a book on children’s stories.
I consider that a scientist, if he can do, should help to render
science intelligible to ordinary people and have done my best to
popularise it”. Some of his important works are: Daedalus;
or Science and the Future (1924); Callinicus: A defense of Chemical
warfare (1925); The Last Judgment (1927); Animal Biology (1927 with
J.S. Huxley); Possible Worlds and other Essays (1927); The Origin
of Life in Rationalist Annual (1929 pp. 3-10); Science & Ethics
(1928); Enzymes (1930); The Inequality of Man and Other Essay (1932),
Science and Human Life (1933); Fact and Faith (1934); The Causes
of Evolution (1933). Science and the Supernatural (1935 -–with
A Lunn); My Friend: Mr. Leakey (1937 – for children); The
Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences (1938); Heredity and Politics
(1938); Science and You (1939); Science and Everyday Life (1940);
Preface and Notes to Dialectics of Nature (F. Engels, translated
and edited by C. Dutta, 1940); Science in Peace and War (1940);
New Paths in Genetics (1941); Science Advances (1947); What is Life
For his outstanding contribution Haldane received
many recognitions. Haldane was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society
in 1932. The Royal Society awarded him its Darwin Medal in 1953"
in recognition of his initiation of the modern phase of study of
the evolution of living population”. The French Government
gave him the Legion of Honour in 1937 and the Academia Nazionale
dei Lincei gave him the Feltrinelli Prize (1961). The other awards
he received were: Weldon Memorial Prize from Oxford University;
the Darwin Wallace Medal of the Linnean Society; the Huxley Memorial
Medal of the Anthropological Institute and Kimbler Genetics Award
of the US National Academy of Sciences. He was President of the
Genetical Society (1932-36).
He died on December 1, 1964. As per his will his
body was sent to the Rangaraya Medical College, Kakinada. “My
body has been used for both purposes during my lifetime”,
Haldane wrote in his will, “and after my death, whether I
continue to exist or not, I shall have no further use for it, and
desire that it shall be used by others. Its refrigeration, if this
is possible, should be a first charge on my estate”.
- N. Mitchison, The Conquered, London: Jonathan Cape, 1923. (Noami
Mitchison is J.B.S Haldane’s sister)
- N. Mitchison, The Bull and Calves, Londone: Jonathan Cape,
- Haldane, L.K., Friends and Kindred, London: Faber and Faber
Ltd., 1961 (The reminiscences of JBS Haldane’s mother, Louisa
- Haldane J.B.S. An autobiography in brief, Bombay: Illustrated
Weekly of India, 1961.
- Science Reporter, New Delhi: Publication and information Directorate
(now renamed as National Institute of Science Communication and
Information Resources), 2, 1965 (a special Haldane number containing
articles on his life and work).
- N.W. Pirie, in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal
Society, London, 12, 1966.
- Dronamraju, K.R., (Ed.) Haldane and Modern Biology, Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.
- Ronald W. Clark, J.B.S.: The Life and Work of J.B.S.Haldane,
New York: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1968.
- Wright, S., Haldane’s Contribution to Population and
Evolutionary Genetics, Proc. XII Intern., Genet., 3:445-451, 1969.
- Dronamraju, K.R., Haldane: The life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane
with special reference to India. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University
Press-Pergamon Press, 1985.
- Dronamraju, K.R., (Ed.) Selected Genetic Papers of J.B.S. Haldane,
New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1990.
- J.B.S. Haldane: A Tribute, Calcutta: Indian Statistical Institute,
- The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists (2nd edition). David,
Ian, John & Margaret Millar. Cambridge: Cambridge University
- A Dictionary of Scientists Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999.