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John Burdon Sanderson Haldane
The Ideal of a Polymath
 
 
 
Dr Subodh Mahanti

 

“I am a part of nature, and, like other natural objects, from a lightning flash to a mountain range, I shall last out my time and then finish. This prospect does not worry me, because some of my work will not die when I do so.”

J.B.S. Haldane

“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 Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists (2nd Edition), 2002


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 science.”

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 misleading one.

“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 textbook material.

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