J. B. S. Haldane's Last Years: His Life and Work in India (1957-1964)

By Dronamraju, Krishna | Genetics, May 2010 | Go to article overview

J. B. S. Haldane's Last Years: His Life and Work in India (1957-1964)


Dronamraju, Krishna, Genetics


ABSTRACT

J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) was an outstanding scientist and a polymath who contributed significantly to physiology, genetics, biochemistry, statistics, biometry, cosmology, and philosophy, although he himself possessed no formal qualifications in any branch of science. His early science training was provided by his father, Oxford University physiologist J. S. Haldane, and the rest was self-taught. The author came to know him well as his student during his last years, which were spent in India (1957-1964). Haldane's unique intellectual qualities and the research undertaken by his associates in India during those years are described.

JOHN Burdon Sanderson ( J. B. S.) Haldane (1892- 1964) was an exceptional scientist whose mental powers were extraordinary. He possessed both great intelligence and a prodigious memory and was able to divide his attention between two entirely different subjects simultaneously. He was able, for instance, to sit in a lecture room, writing a mathematical paper on evolution while closely paying attention to a lecture on a different topic as he demonstrated during the discussion at the end of the lecture.

Haldane's last years in India are of interest because he showed how an eminent scientist from the West can transplant himself to a less developed country and still lead a productive and creative life during his last years. He suggested research projects that could be undertaken by utilizing local resources, requiring no expensive laboratories or equipment, while much of his own research was of theoretical and mathematical nature and hence not dependent on external funding.

I came to know Haldane intimately during those years in India (1957-1964). In Calcutta, I shared a house with the Haldanes in the suburb of Baranagore near the Indian Statistical Institute. We traveled together all over India and Europe for various scientific meetings. One memorable conference was held in Israel on the ''Genetics of Migrant and Isolate Populations'' (Goldschmidt 1963). On behalf of the organizing committee, Elisabeth Goldschmidt invited Haldane to preside over the conference, with these words: ''We may consider ourselves fortunate indeed that Prof. Haldane has accepted the presidency of this conference on shortrange evolution in human populations. Human population genetics is one of the several fields in which you cannot move without encountering the approaches and analyses of Prof. Haldane at every step . . . Some of Prof. Haldane's ingenious proposals . . . have kept us busy with discussions for long years . . . it is an enormous privilege for us to be allowed to carry on this conference in his presence and under his guidance'' (Goldschmidt 1963, p. 5). During the 1930s and 1940s, Haldane was active in finding research positions for Jewish refugees who were fleeingNaziGermany. Prominent among them was biochemist Boris Chain who was introduced to Howard Florey by Haldane; Chain and Florey's subsequent collaboration led to the Nobel Prize that they shared with Fleming for their work on the discovery and development of penicillin as the first antibiotic (Haldane 1961).

J. B. S. Haldane was a great popularizer of science, contributing numerous articles to newspapers and popular magazines in several countries. A selection of these essays has recently been published (Dronamraju 2009). Many of these pieces were written in his ''spare time'' while traveling on trains and planes. Haldane's ''popular'' scientific essays are, in fact, much more than that; they often contained original ideas that remain of interest to scientists.

He never received a degree in any branch of science, yet he became one of the great and influential scientists of the 20th century. Haldane, who was popularly known as either just ''JBS'' or ''Prof'' or simply ''Haldane'' was a true polymath, a genius who possessed intimate knowledge of multiple disciplines. He made important contributions to several sciences as well as to philosophy, religion, logic, popular writing, and ethics. …

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