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J.B.S. Haldane: A Legacy in Several Worlds


Article # : 15482 

Section : NATURAL SCIENCE
Issue Date : 12 / 1989  3,231 Words
Author : Larry Hedrick

       Though J.B.S Haldane never possessed--as he lamented--"a scrap of power," his influence was felt around the world. In 72 years of life, he produced 23 books, 400 scientific papers, and several thousand popular articles. His seminal work in population genetics and evolution has secured him lasting recognition, but he will also be remembered for his contributions to biochemistry, physiology, and statistics. He was a very public figure, and it is difficult to think of a scientist who approached the major issues of our time with equal passion.
       
        John Burdon Sanderson Haldane entered the world in Oxford, England, on November 5, 1892. His father was the distinguished British physiologist John Scott Haldane; his mother, Louisa, was strong-willed and talented. Haldane grew up in "Cherwell," a late Victorian house on to outskirts of Oxford, but both of his parents had deep roots in Scotland. He would say in later life that his Y-chromosome could be traced back to Robert the Bruce, a thirteenth century Scottish king.
       
        Treated as a miniature adult rather than a child, Haldane proved to be a prodigy. He learned to read by his third birthday, and before his fourth he is said to have pointed to a fresh cut on his forehead and asked if the blood was "oxyhemoglobin or carboxyhemoglobin." At eight he was helping his father in the laboratory. His formal education began at Oxford Preparatory School, where his mastery of mathematics earned him a scholarship to Eton.
       
        Eton And Oxford And On To The Front
       
        In 1905 he donned the formal attire of a young Etonian. All new boys were subject to hazing, but the upperclassmen took a special delight in tormenting the arrogant newcomer named Haldane. During one term they beat him every night for a week. He stayed the course, though, excelled in his studies, and rose to be a captain of the school; but the abuse he suffered at Eton taught him to hate authority and left him with an abiding distaste for the English education system. In time Eton would reciprocate his feelings. When the British biologist John Maynard Smith enrolled there in the 1930s, he found that Haldane, because of his many controversial and well-publicized remarks, was "The person my schoolmasters most hated."
       
        In the autumn of 1911, he came home to Oxford as a scholarship student at New College, and within a year his progress in mathematics had earned him first-class honors. After immersing himself in genetics, he presented a paper in the summer of 1912 on gene linkage in vertebrates. Thus, at the age of 19 Haldane was already launched as a geneticist, and he could have rapidly consolidated his gains in the field. But when he returned to his studies in the fall of 1912, he put aside mathematics and biology in favor of the classics and philosophy. Again he won first-class honors. He planned to concentrate on physiology when the autumn term opened in 1914, but the Great War intervened, and he never earned an academic degree in any of the sciences.
       
        Life at the front suited Haldane's eccentricities. As a lieutenant in the Black Watch, he commanded a mobile explosives lab where, on his order, smoking cigarettes was compulsory; to Haldane's mind, the rule was proof that he and his men had "absolute confidence in one another and in our weapons." Day after day, he would sally forth to loose his experimental bombs and mortars against the enemy.
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