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 comm