“I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
-Possible Worlds and Other Papers
John Burdon Sanders Haldane is well known for many achievements. Of his numerous achievements, his contribution to the founding of population genetics is most recognized, but to limit Haldane’s brilliance to so small a subject does him great injustice. Even attempting to summarize his life into words is somewhat of a fruitless act. From the time he was born in 1892 until his death in 1964, he dedicated his life and body to science.
"My body has been used for both purposes during my lifetime 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."
Haldane was born into a family of aristocrats and scientists. He inherited a knack for scientific self-experimenting from his father, John Scott Haldane, a Scottish physiologist known for his extensive research on the dangers of natural gases to the human body. During his early education, Haldane excelled at mathematics, and after graduating from Eton, received a mathematics scholarship to New College at Oxford. After being wounded during the First World War, Haldane was taken to India to recover, a place to which he would return in 1957.
At Oxford, in order to relax from mathematical studies, Haldane attended E S Goodrich’s course in Zoology which led to his eventual study of genetics. In addition to his studies of genetics, Haldane took up the study of the classics and writing, allowing him to become one of the, still, few skilled scientific writers. A few of Haldane’s most well known publications include Daedalus (1924), Enzymes (1930), Animal Biology (1929), The Causes of Evolution (1932), On Being the Right Size (1926), and perhaps the most influential of all his publications, A Mathematical Theory of Natural and Artificial Selection (1924). Haldane’s skill in writing stayed in him until his death. Even in India, his pupils noted that he was not only an extremely good writer, but spent a good part of the day writing letters and answering mail. “He believed that a written communication gave the writer time to think carefully before expressing his thoughts and was then less likely to be influenced by emotions. Also he felt that a statement in writing eliminated possible disputes in what had been said or not said….he was known to use certain abbreviations involving numbers and letters, for example, best wishes 2 U” (Dronamraju).
Having a strong knowledge of mathematics allowed Haldane to become a leading contributor to the study of population genetics. He was a major contributor to the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. In A Mathematical Theory of Natural and Artificial Selection, Haldane analyzed the processes of natural selection from a mathematical point of view. During his occupation at University College, London from 1937 to 1957, Haldane was able to devise methods to calculate human mutation rates, prepare linkage maps for human chromosomes, better understand different modes of inheritance, measure the degree or intensity of natural selection operating in human populations, study the effects of close inbreeding, and even developed a better understanding of nature and nurture and the genetic basis of psychological and other behavioral characteristics.
Although much of Haldane’s work was theoretical, he was as much of a keen experimenter has his father. Early on in his scientific career, Haldane subjected his body to many rigorous and dangerous scientific experiments. He stated “An experimental animal is not capable of describing the physiological reactions of pain, smell and so on….and make no serious attempt to cooperate with the scientists” (Dronamraju). In one experiment to test the theory that carbon dioxide in the human blood enabled the regulation of breathing under different conditions, he ingested large quantities of bicarbonate of soda to raise the alkalinity in h is blood stream and drank ammonium chloride to raise the acidity. In another he tested the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning in mines, a subject his father rigorously studied.
Haldane left University College, London in 1957 and moved to India where he stayed until his death in 1964. In the 1950’s, Haldane grew dissatisfied with his life in England, finding the political situation intolerable. Although many colleagues in England considered his move scientific suicide, Haldane quickly embraced the new customs. He became an Indian citizen and grew interested in Hinduism. To his pupils in India, Haldane’s life in India was a sort of second life to the one he had in England. In 1962, Haldane moved to Bhubaneswar, India to carry out his last projects before succumbing to cancer in 1964.
Clark, Ronald. J. B. S.: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane. 1st. Oxford University Press, 1984. Print.
Dronamraju, Krishna. Haldane: The life and work of JBS Haldane with special reference to India. 1st. Aberdeen: Aberdeen Univeristy Press, 1985. Print.