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Summary Article: Haldane, J(ohn) B(urdon) S(anderson) (1892-1964) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: United States of America

Subject: biography, biology

English-born Indian physiologist famous also for his work in genetics.

Haldane was born in Oxford on 5 November 1892, the son of John Scott Haldane, himself a well-known physiologist. From the early age of eight he was introduced to medicine and assisted his father. He went to Eton and was later educated at New College, Oxford. After gaining a degree in mathematics he did equally well in classics and philosophy. During World War I he served on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia, where he was wounded twice; he then returned to study physiology at New College in 1919. Two years later he moved to Cambridge to work under the English biochemist Frederick Gowland Hopkins. In 1933 he took up the genetics chair at University College, London, and later the chair in biometry. Between 1927-36 he also held a part-time appointment at the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton, where he carried on the work of the previous director William Bateson. Haldane was an outspoken Marxist during the 1930s and served for a time as chairman of the editorial board of the London Daily Worker. He worked for the Admiralty in World War II and left the Communist Party disappointed by the fame awarded to the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko. He emigrated to India in 1957 in protest at the Anglo-French invasion of Suez and was appointed director of the Genetics and Biometry Laboratory in Orissa, which had excellent facilities. He became a naturalized Indian citizen in 1961, and died of cancer at Bhubaneshwar on 1 December 1964.

Haldane's interest in the field of genetics was first sparked by a lecture in 1901 on the discovery, a year earlier, of the work of Gregor Mendel, outlining the basic laws of inheritance. Some years later, in 1910, he commenced his study of the laws of heredity as displayed by the 300 guinea pigs kept by his sister. He later published a paper on gene linkage in vertebrates and in 1922 propounded Haldane's law. In 1925 he researched the association of gene linkage and age, and published a paper on the mathematics of natural selection. He was convinced that natural selection and not mutation is the driving force behind evolution. In 1932 he estimated for the first time the rate of mutation of the human gene and worked out the effect of recurrent harmful mutations on a population. While he was at University College he continued his work on human genetics and in 1936 showed the genetic link between haemophilia and colour blindness.

While Haldane was still at school he helped his father with research on the physiology of breathing and aspects of respiration concerned with deep-sea diving and safety in mines. Haldane's interest in respiration led him, during World War I, to work with his father yet again, on the improvization of gas masks. After the war, at Oxford, he investigated how the presence of carbon dioxide in human blood is vital in the muscular regulation of breathing in varying conditions. In the course of their research Haldane and his colleague, Peter Davies, subjected themselves to eating large quantities of sodium bicarbonate and drank ammonium chloride to introduce hydrochloric acid into their bloodstream. They also experimented with fluctuating concentrations of sugar and phosphate in the bloodstream and in urine. During World War II, in 1942, Haldane and a friend spent two days in a submarine to test an air-purifying system. He also simulated conditions inside submarines and subjected himself to extremes of temperature and a concentration of carbon dioxide in the air.

In 1924, having been introduced to enzyme reactions by Hopkins, Haldane produced the first proof that they obey the laws of thermodynamics. In 1930 Haldane published Enzymes, which gave an overall picture of how enzymes work.

Haldane is most remembered as a geneticist and a proponent of the unity of the sciences. His papers, lectures, and broadcasts made him one of the world's best-known scientists.

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.

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