Sunday, February 8, 2015

Veteran scientist #19, J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964)

British Army infantry officer 1914-1919.  Biologist, geneticist, mathematician and writer.

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was one of the 20th century’s most prominent biologists.  He played pivotal roles in the development of several fields—from physiology to genetics to evolutionary biology—and to this day is one of the most widely quote biologists.  He was also a decorated combat veteran.  Unlike many veteran scientists his combat experiences are well documented, revealing that his military accomplishments were as diverse as his academic ones.

J.B.S. Haldane was born to a Scottish family and quickly showed talent in several areas.  As a child he excelled at reading, math, science and languages.  He learned four languages before leaving school—Latin, Greek, French and German—and published his first scientific paper at age 19 on haemoglobin function.  At first studying math, Haldane changed his major to classics and graduated from Oxford in 1914.

That summer, with the outbreak of WWI imminent, he volunteered for the British Army and became an officer in the famed Black Watch, a Scottish infantry regiment nicknamed the “Ladies from Hell” for their kilts.

That winter his unit deployed to France to fight the Germans, and Haldane was put in charge of a mobile explosives lab.  He and a group of a dozen enlisted men would design and build small bombs, as well as improvised shells to be used as trench mortars.  Then Haldane and his men would crawl through the no-man’s land between the lines and toss their creations into enemy trenches or machine gun emplacements.  His enthusiasm for the job earned him the nickname “Bombo” among his fellow soldiers.

He quickly earned a reputation for bravery, going on solo missions through no-man’s land until a superior forced him to take a Private with him.  One time he even rode a bicycle alone straight through the open, rightly calculating that his brazen behavior would stun the German soldiers long enough for him to get to cover.  His bravery and unconventional methods eventually drew the attention of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of all British forces in France, who called Haldane the "bravest and dirtiest officer in my Army.”

Meanwhile, Haldane published his first genetics paper from the trenches, based on lab work he’d done before the war.  In it he provided the first demonstration of genetic linkage—the tendency for some traits to be inherited together because the genes encoding them occur near each other on the same chromosome—in mammals.  Until Haldane showed that it occurred in mice the phenomenon was known only from fruit flies.  He claimed, almost certainly correctly, to be the only officer of the regiment to publish a scientific paper from the front.

Three months into Haldane’s time at the front the Germans unleashed their first chemical weapon—chlorine gas canisters—against the French in Belgium.  Haldane’s father, a physiologist, was commissioned by the British government to invent a mask to protect troops from the terrible new weapons.  Within weeks J.B.S. Haldane was recalled from the front to help with his father’s gas mask research in another part of France.

Over the next few days J.B.S., his father and other researchers, by experimenting on themselves with small amounts of chlorine gas, quickly developed a working gas mask that could be distributed to troops.  J.B.S. was then sent back to the front to do field research on the German gas attacks.

On the way to his assignment, however, Haldane heard that his old unit was about to attack the German lines.  He decided to postpone his gas mask assignment to join his men for the attack.  Still suffering breathing problems from his chlorine gas exposure, Haldane charged through no-man’s land with the rest of the Black Watch.

The battle was a disaster.  No British objectives were achieved and the Germans inflicted heavy losses.  During the attack, which quickly bogged down, Haldane took command of a scattered platoon and pushed forward, but was soon knocked to the ground by an explosion.  He stood back up, gathered the platoon again and continued the attack, only to be blown up a second time.

The second explosion sent shrapnel through Haldane’s arm and torso.  He eventually got up and walked in a daze back to the rear, where a fellow officer spotted him wandering.  The officer loaded Haldane into an ambulance.  By strange chance, the ambulance driver turned out to be none other than the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VIII, who recognized Haldane from a meeting they’d had a year earlier.

The Prince drove Haldane to an aid station and after a series of operations Haldane found himself recovering with his family back in England.  That summer, after recovering from his wounds, Haldane volunteered to return to active duty, this time directing a bombing school in Scotland.  There he spent several months training officers and NCOs on how to use grenades and grenade launchers—both novel weapons at the time—and on how to teach the methods to their troops.

The following spring, 1916, Haldane was assigned to do intelligence work in Edinburgh, a job he thought was “silly.”  He longed to return to the Black Watch at the front.  In fall of that year he finally succeeded, and was sent to a battalion of the Black Watch in Iraq to fight the Turks.  After going ashore in Iraq he traveled up the Tigris from Basra to join the front somewhere south of Baghdad.  Once there he was appointed executive officer of a company and was also put in charge of the battalion’s snipers.

Haldane earned distinction helping to improvise new sniping techniques and methods for harassing the enemy.  He was soon given free reign to move his snipers around the area, picking off Turkish soldiers posted on the opposite bank of the Tigris.  Haldane described his time in Iraq as “war as the great poets have sung it,” believing he was “lucky to have experienced it.”

Early in 1917 his battalion crossed the Tigris and pushed back the enemy lines.  During the attack an airplane hangar filled with fuel and bombs caught fire.  Haldane gathered men to fight the blaze, and was soon blown up yet again, by an exploding British bomb, and took shrapnel in his leg.  He was taken to India that summer to recover.

During his recovery he did what war work he could—writing reports and doing minor intelligence work for the Army.  He also fell in love with the people and country.  He taught himself Urdu in the hospital, traveled as much as possible, and tried to adopt local customs.

After recovery from his Iraq wounds, in early 1918 Haldane was sent to another part of India to be an instructor at yet another bombing school.  There he saved a Corporal’s life by picking up and tossing away an armed rifle grenade that the man had improperly attached to his rifle.

But yet again Haldane ended up in the hospital, this time from jaundice, and was sent to the Himalayas and then to England to recover.  There he was attached to an intelligence unit for the last few months of the war.  After the war he briefly returned to his men at the Black Watch, then stationed in Ireland, and then left the Army in early 1919.

Haldane, like many combat veterans, had mixed feelings about his war experiences.  He recoiled from the horror and waste of war, but felt unfulfilled with the emptiness of civilian life.

“I enjoy the comradeship of war.  Men like war because it is the only socialized activity in which they have ever taken part.  The soldier is working with comrades for a great cause (or so at least believes).  In peace-time he is working for his own profit or someone else’s.”

Haldane devoted the rest of his exciting life to political causes, the popularization of science, and a long career of groundbreaking scientific research.  All this despite the fact that he never actually got a degree in any scientific field.

Among other things, he was an early founder of the field of population genetics and, along with another famous veteran scientist, Julian Huxley, helped bring about the modern evolutionary synthesis.  He also did research on statistics, physiology, the evolution of body size, and the chemical origin of life.  He wrote books, essays, and short stories.  During World War II he researched the physiology of living at high pressures as part of a government effort to help protect sailors on submarines.  Some have even proposed that he worked as a spy during that war.

Forever in love with India after his exposure to it during WWI, in 1956 Haldane finally emigrated there, partly as a form of political dissent from the policies of the British government.  He became an Indian citizen and worked at the Indian Statistical Institute, and died there from cancer eight years after his arrival.

Today he is remembered for his many timeless quotes about biology and life in general.  Here are just a few of his famous nuggets.

“Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

When asked in an interview if there was any character he could attribute to God based on his study of the world, he answered “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

“No,” he wouldn’t give his life to save a drowning brother, “but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”

“There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god.”

To the end, Haldane remembered his combat time in France and Iraq.  Two years before his death, at age 70, he claimed that "I still hope to die in battle at the age of a hundred."

J.B.S. Haldane is remembered as one of our most witty and irreverent scientists, unafraid to challenge authority or conventional ideas.  He was no less brave and irreverent a soldier, fighting and surviving on two separate fronts during one of history’s bloodiest wars.

 —The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane, Ronald Clark
Photo from Wikimedia Commons


  1. When asked in an interview if there was any character he could attribute to God based on his study of the world, he answered “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

    Still one of my favorites.