Haldane: a cantankerous and charismatic pioneer

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By | The Researcher’s View

Katy Makin, project archivist at University College London, provides some fascinating insights into the life and personality of J B S Haldane, one of the ‘Makers of Modern Genetics’ whose papers were digitised for the Codebreakers online resource.  The original Haldane archive is held by UCL Library Services.

One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of an archivist’s job is learning about the lives of other people through their archive. Prior to the Codebreakers project the papers of JBS Haldane, held here at UCL, were completely unsorted and uncatalogued – meaning that another cataloguer and myself spent months combing through the seventy boxes of papers, uncovering all kinds of records relating to Haldane’s life.

John Burdon Sanderson (JBS) Haldane became Professor of Genetics at UCL in 1933 and Professor of Biometry in 1937, a post he held for the next 20 years. His particular research interests were population genetics and heredity; he 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.” (From unpublished autobiographical notes found in the Haldane collection, ref. HALDANE/2/1/8.)

Haldane has a reputation at UCL for being a ‘character’ – possessed of a formidable intellect and an engaging speaker, but often short-tempered and abrupt. One can well imagine him terrorising the switchboard operators at UCL if he felt they were too busy chatting, as shown in his letters of complaint to UCL’s secretary. He made no apologies for his cantankerousness; writing to Lionel Elvin in 1939 (HALDANE/5/1/2/11/3) to reject a proposal that he should stand for Parliament on the grounds that: “My personal character is such as not to endear me to a number of people, who state, probably correctly, that I am rude.”

However, his regular writings on science, politics and a multitude of other topics in newspapers such as the Daily Worker did endear him to a number of people, and he was forced to reassure at least one fan that he wasn’t as flawless as she imagined him to be. In response to her impassioned letter (HALDANE/5/1/3/30) he replied:

I have a very bad temper… I am a Communist. I do not chew tobacco but smoke a lot. I know plenty of ‘risqué stories’ but rarely tell them, as the facts about the sexual behaviour of fish are odder, besides being true. I have not suffered from piles since about 1930, but have an assortment of injuries from the wars.

Although such fan letters are rare, his publications were popular with the general public and inspired many others to write to him with their queries, concerns, inventions and observations. The remarkable thing about his correspondence is not only the volume of the letters but that almost all everyone received a response.

Extract of letter to JBS Haldane

Letter from Mary Kilgour in appreciation of Haldane’s book for children, ‘My Friend Mr Leakey’. HALDANE/5/1/4/133

Although Haldane is best known for his work in the field of genetics, he spent several years during the Second World War carrying out research into the physiological effects of deep-sea diving and submarine escape. He had helped his father, physiologist John Scott Haldane, in his experiments into respiration from an early age. In 1939 JBS was contacted by the Admiralty to act as an expert witness at the enquiry into the loss of the submarine HMS Thetis, which sank during sea trials; material relating to the case can be found with Haldane’s research work (HALDANE/1/5/2).

Newspaper clipping of JBS Haldane

Newspaper article from the Daily Sketch, entitled “They were two hours from death”, about Haldane’s work on the Thetis tank tests.

After his initial refusal to evacuate UCL at the start of the Second World War, leading to a short period of residence in the Zoology department, Haldane and a small team of workers moved to Rothamsted Experimental Station where they spent much of the war working in a decompression chamber investigating the effects of diving on the human body. These experiments were highly dangerous, frequently resulting in loss of consciousness and convulsions. In a letter regarding his medical insurance Haldane lists some alarming injuries sustained as a result of his wartime work, and often makes references to back pain in later correspondence. One of the experiments in the decompression chamber was later dramatized for a radio broadcast by the BBC A Layman Looks at Science.

I could continue at length about the odd pieces of information that can be found in the Haldane archive, but I’ll end with one of my favourite documents – a letter to zoologist H G Callan accompanying the handwritten will Haldane made in 1951. We’re not quite sure what prompted him to make his will at this point, but he was evidently concerned for his wife (co-worker Helen Spurway) and her job prospects if he should predecease her, not to mention the fate of her stock of laboratory newts. He is forthright about her faults, “notably a refusal to publish”, but praises her “capacity for working a 12 hour day”. However, if they should both perish then Callan is urged to “hurry up and grab the newts”.

Extract of letter from JBS Haldane

Letter from Haldane, requesting a job for his wife after his death that would save her and “a lot of valuable newts”. HALDANE/3/3/5/3

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