Scotland's unsung hero of popular science

PUBLISHED: 16:36 06 September 2007 | UPDATED: 14:37 07 September 2010

David Crozier meets Martin Goodman, biographer of the extraordinary but largely unknown Scottish physiologist John Scott Haldane ALEXANDER Graham Bell. John Logie Baird. Alexander Fleming. All Scottish. All household names. But what of Dr John Scott Haldane? Born in Edinburgh in 1860, he made a hugely significant contribution to public health and industrial safety and yet little h

ALEXANDER Graham Bell. John Logie Baird. Alexander Fleming. All Scottish. All household names.

But what of Dr John Scott Haldane? Born in Edinburgh in 1860, he made a hugely significant contribution to public health and industrial safety and yet little has been written about him. Until now.

Suffer and Survive by Martin Goodman is, its author believes, the first ever biography of J.S. Haldane - a book which, Good-man writes, "is an attempt to nudge him out of the shadows and into world renown, just as Brunel's first biography reclaimed a genius from obscurity."

So does that mean Goodman would put Haldane on the same level of importance as Isambard Kingdom Brunel?

"I do," Goodman said. "While he isn't well known, many of the things that he achieved are. I checked with mining historians and none of them seemed to know where canaries came in. They felt that they were introduced in American folklore in the 18th century when, in fact, it was Haldane in the late 1890s who conceived this notion of canaries and mice going into mines [to test the safety of the air] for the first time.

"The diving world exists because of his diving tables that he forged out of nowhere 100 years ago. He was the guy who stopped people getting the Bends."

And that wasn't all. As Goodman's book entertainingly explains, he also devised the first ever space suit, the oxygen tent and the gas mask to name but three more.

All of which begs the question: Why don't we know about him already?

Goodman thinks Haldane is, at least in part, to blame for that himself.

"He didn't seek a name for himself. He had a moustache that was as good as Einstein's hair - so he looked the part - but he didn't sell himself in that way. I think he was also immensely ahead of his time.

"The fact that he introduced canaries into mines I more or less discovered. There was like a whoop of delight in the British Library when I first found the reference."

Another remarkable thing about Haldane was that, in Goodman's words, he was "the world's greatest serial self-experimentor". Haldane wasn't just someone who interpreted results. He did the tests himself, regularly gassing himself in order to know what it felt like and what was happening.

"He very much believed on experimenting on himself rather than animals so he got the best quality feedback," said Goodman. "He could endure more than most people could and also he was looking into the question of why and how do we breathe and it was a human question not animals."

A remarkably courageous man - his children would keep an eye on his lab at times so that if he went too far and collapsed, help wouldn't be far away - was always likely to make a good subject for a book.

"I thought that it would be exciting stuff because as a serial self-experimenter this man never flagged. He was doing experiments in Iran and Iraq in the last year of his life [1936]. Then on the way home, he devised ventilation for the Mersey Tunnel."

He also developed field laboratories so he could work in the harshest conditions. "He worked down the deepest mine, on the top of the highest mountains, the depths of the seas..." Goodman said. "He just kept working in all these different wild environments - again, great for a writer."

It seems he was very fortunate not to kill himself.

"There are some occasions when he came close because bits of the apparatus came off and things like that," said Goodman. "But he would have felt that what he was doing was safe because he was pushing limits but gradually each time.

"In the course of devising the very first gas mask, when these gases were released no-one knew for sure what they were or how to prevent them so he had to gas himself, his colleagues and his son to work out what the gas was and find a way to resist it."

Haldane was also part of a hugely important family which included Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928), John Scott Haldane's brother, who was 1st Viscount Haldane, twice Lord Chancellor under Asquith and also during the first Labour government of Ramsay Macdonald. John's biologist son, Jack (1892-1964), is these days probably the most famous Haldane although Jack's sister, celebrated novelist Naomi Mitchison CBE (1897-1999) also has a claim to that.

Indeed, Lady Asquith once said of the family: "The trouble with the Haldanes is that they let their brains go to their heads."

Goodman has no doubt about Haldane's brains or his deserved place in history. "He is certainly one of the great Scots," he said, "and I hope he becomes recognised as such."

o Suffer and Survive - Gas Attacks, Miners' Canaries, Spacesuits and the Bends: The Extreme Life of Dr J.S. Haldane by Martin Goodman is

published by Simon and Schuster priced £14.99.

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