Suffer and Survive

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Suffer and Survive: The Extreme Life of Dr J S Haldane

by Goodman, Martin (2007)

Reviewed by Roger Newman Turner, 2008 published in Network Review No 97

He was the man who put the canaries in the mines, made it possible for men to descend to the depths of the oceans and ascend the world's highest peaks, and he can even be credited with the early experiments in respiratory physiology that made space travel possible. Dr J S Haldane conducted many experiments, often on himself or his son, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to ascertain the effect on the body of extreme conditions in coalmines, on mountain tops, the trenches of the first world war, and under the sea. When he wasn't working in the field, he simulated the atmospheric conditions in his Oxford laboratory or his own home.

Martin Goodman has applied the same meticulous care to his research into the life and work of this remarkable man as did his subject to his experiments. He describes, in fascinating detail, the effects of gases in the mines or the rarefied atmosphere of high altitudes, drawing on the accounts and published papers of Haldane and his fellow scientists but also gains insight into the life of the man himself through the writings of his family and friends.

In 1894 one of the worst mining disasters of the 19th century killed 57 men at the Tylorstown colliery in the Rhondda Valley. Haldane was called in to examine the bodies and to try and ascertain the cause of the explosion. After taking blood samples and coal dust from the bodies of pit ponies and the faces of the dead men he concluded that carbon monoxide and not simply the force of the explosion or burning was responsible for many of the deaths. Recognising that canaries were sensitive to low levels of noxious gases insufficient to extinguish a miner's lamp, Haldane devised a cage containing a canary for miners to carry in the pits. When the bird keeled over the miners were alerted to the danger whilst a sprung trap sealed the cage into which oxygen was released to revive it. This became known as the Haldane Box. The yellow canary is an analogy now often used in functional medicine for the environmentally sensitive patient.

Back in Edinburgh, where he studied and his family had a home, Haldane experimented on oxygen deprivation by sitting for hours in an airtight lead­lined box with an observation window. By analysing the air extracted from the chamber in which he or a colleague sat, it was possible to determine the lowest levels of oxygen at which men could survive. Haldane was to conduct many such endurance experiments. In his own home he used sealed rooms in which he climbed up and down ladders with a miner's lamp to determine the most lethal levels of carbon monoxide.

He spent several months on Pike's Peak in Colorado studying the effects of high altitude; he was appointed by the Admiralty to develop ventilation systems for new submarines; he was employed by the War Office to devise gas masks to protect troops fighting in the trenches of northern Europe in the first world war. He even used his own son, Jack, as an experimental subject, sending him under water in a diving suit in his efforts to devise tables of ascent that are used to this day by divers to prevent 'the bends'.

Goodman does not portray Haldane as simply a ruthless, hardnosed scientist however. He held deep philosophical convictions which some­times drew criticism from his peers. 'Science is the application of abstract logical principles to a reality which they can never express fully' he wrote. And of what he described as the 'misty sphere' at the periphery of our limits of knowledge he said 'the advance of investigation has only served to make the misty sphere more evident'.

Haldane's enquiring mind and philosophical inclinations were probably influenced by his education. Born into a well-connected, somewhat Calvinistic Scottish family - his elder brother Lord Richard Haldane became Secretary for War and later Lord Chancellor - he did an MA at Edinburgh University, then studied in Germany at the University of Jena where he was exposed to the philosophy of Goethe and Hegel and attended lectures by Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel was a champion of 'monism' and put forward the post-Darwinian view that environment had a profound influence on each organism and its evolution - views that undoubtedly influenced Haldane throughout his life.

Haldane was married to Kathleen an 'Edinburgh Tory' whose rather right-wing views surface at several points in the book but may have served to restrain her husband from exploring the wilder shores to which his enquiring spirit might have been tempted. Undoubtedly she was a stabilising force who gave Haldane and their two children a secure foundation for their productive lives. Their son, Professor J B S Haldane, became an eminent geneticist and their daughter, the well­known novelist Naomi Mitchison.

In this absorbing biography Martin Goodman has brought to life one of medicine's great eccentrics,­ demon­strating that the combination of humanity, spiritual awareness, and scientific rigour can still bring real benefits to mankind.


Dr. Roger Newman Turner is a
naturopath and author of a number of
books including 'Naturopathic
Medicine: Treating the Whole Person'.



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