John Scott Haldane Biography (1860-1936)


John Scott Haldane is revered for his key advancements in respiratory physiology. Born into an affluent Scottish family, Haldane's father, Robert, workedas a lawyer and writer to the signet of Edinburgh, and his older brother Richard Burdon was the Viscount Haldane of Cloan. His advanced education took place at Edinburgh Academy and Edinburgh University, where he received a degreein medicine in 1884. Further education took place at Jena and Berlin.

Research became Haldane's passion as he began his first work on the composition of air in homes and schools at Dundee a piece that would be published in 1887. In the same year, he made his final professional move as he establisheda position at Oxford as demonstrator in physiology alongside his uncle. As Haldane refused to accept unproven distinctions between applied science and that based on speculation, he launched into his work on the relation between thecarbon dioxide content of inhaled air and respiratory volume. Using information that was obtained in previous laboratory studies, he started his study ofthe hazards coal miners were exposed to. This report became a basis for thecause of death in mine disasters with an emphasis on carbon monoxide's lethaleffects. Determined to establish the exact reason for carbon monoxide's toxicity, Haldane went back to the lab and by experimenting on mice in a hyperbaric environment, he developed facts that demonstrated carbon monoxide binds hemoglobin (the iron containing pigment of red blood cells), which prevents itscrucial role in carrying oxygen throughout the body. This discovery was ahead of Haldane's time, as carbon monoxide poisoning's clinical connection wouldnot be appreciated for over a half a century.

Determined to establish a logical method for his research, Haldane created the infamous Haldane gas analysis apparatus in 1898. Shortly after, along withJoseph Barcroft, he devised a method for determining blood gas content from small amounts of blood. As his work progressed, Haldane produced his most influential paper in 1905. Written with J. G. Priestly, he expressed that pulmonary ventilation is controlled by the limited pressure of carbon dioxide in blood throughout the arteries that reaches the respiratory center of the midbrain. While his research of chemical control of ventilation was changed severaltimes, his basic premise clearly showed that, except under extreme conditions, the regulation of breathing depends much more on the amount of carbon dioxide in air that is inhaled than on the amount of oxygen. This crucial findingwas not applied clinically until after World War II.

Haldane continued to show his interest in the human body's tolerance of stressful conditions as he looked further into work in the mines and deep-sea diving. His work presented the cause and cure for heatstroke and caisson disease,which is also known as bends, or the painful condition in limbs and abdomenas a result of rapid reduction of air pressure. His method for stage decompression to prevent the development of nitrogen bubbles in tissue spaces upon ascent is common among deep-sea diving operations and in underwater construction.

In 1911, Haldane led several physiologists from around the world to begin their study on the physiological effects of high altitude at the summit of Pike's Peak, Colorado. During this expedition Haldane persisted in the belief thatoxygen could not pass across the lining of the tiniest air sacs (alveoli) inthe lung only due to passive dispersion along a gradient of partial pressure. Instead, he believed in the oxygen secretion theory, which stated that oxygen travel was due to active secretion by the cells lining alveoli sacs. Thisthought held true only to Haldane, and has since been discarded.

Haldane's work also consists of studies on hemoglobin dissociation which presented the manner in which the degree of oxygenation of hemoglobin affects theuptake of carbon dioxide in the tissues and its release in the lung. The reaction of the kidney to water content in the blood and the physiology of sweating were also topics of study for Haldane. He was also in great demand by engineers who relied on his knowledge and counsel when planning safety measuresfor construction of tunnels and diving and mining operations, and for solutions to ventilation problems in buildings, ships, and submarines.

Most of Haldane's findings were summarized at his greatest academic accolade,the Silliman lectures at Yale in 1916. This lecture was published into a book in 1922, and after a revision in 1935, became the standard guide in respiratory physiology. Haldane was also known for his resounding interest in philosophical topics which show in his writings regarding the connection between science and philosophy. It is in these works that Haldane assumed "the mechanism of reproduction and heredity" by the "division from a pre-existing nuclearmechanism . . . that is capable of dividing itself to an absolute indefiniteextent and yet retaining its original structure" all well before transfer ofindividual characteristics through genetic chains was known. Haldane's son, J. B. S. Haldane, is known for his work as a geneticist and philosopher.

Appointments to several royal commissions and as fellow of the Royal Societyin 1897 were fulfilled by Haldane. Accolades include the Royal Medal in 1916,the Copley Medal in 1934, and for his work in industrial hygiene, he was created Companion of Honour in 1928. His career included a position as fellow ofNew College, Oxford that spanned from 1901 until his death. His interests incoal mining led him to the directorship of a research laboratory created bythe coal mining industry, near Doncaster and later in Birmingham where he spent most of his time after 1921.

Haldane's ability to look beyond the laboratory and investigate theory brought crucial findings in respiratory physiology, including: the process by whichoxygen in surrounding air of various environments enters the human body andarrives at the capillary (microscopic blood vessels); the reverse passage ofcarbon dioxide from capillary to exhaled air; the role of the vagus nerve (10th cranial nerve); and devising a method for estimating cardiac output. Whilehe received honorary degrees from several institutions, Haldane never achieved full academic honors.

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