on John Scott Haldane (1860–1936), physiologist

Our extensive collection of Haldane material — ranging from serious apparatus to archives, from teapot to dust — was all rescued from the private laboratory of J. S. Haldane (d.1930) when his house was demolished in 1967 to make way for Wolfson College. We were told we could take anything except the lawn-mower – the room had been used for thirty years as a lumber room and garden shed. Other things rescued included papers of the famous philosopher and geneticist J. B. S. Haldane (Haldane’s son), which we passed on to a better home, and a stale sandwich, which I eventually and with heavy heart threw away.

J. S. Haldane with members of the Oxford University Biological Club in 1898

J. S. Haldane (in the centre) with members of the Oxford University Biological Club in 1898

Another thing we couldn’t take, as well as the lawn-mower, was the built-in decompression chamber; J. S. Haldane was a respiration physiologist, whose research included the effects on health of industrial dust, gas-masks during the First World War, and the respiratory dangers of compression and decompression experienced by deep-sea divers. In his experiments on the latter he was his own guinea-pig, and that’s what the decompression chamber was for; he used to lock himself in it and decompress, with his daughter Naomi, then just a little girl, as laboratory assistant. Her job was to watch him through the port-hole window, and when he turned purple, open the door…

Being a very distinguished family (in politics as well as in science) and very clever (as well as eccentric), the daughter was allowed to attend the Dragon School in Oxford, a boy’s prep school, which was just around the corner. She grew up to be the famous novelist and pioneer feminist Naomi Mitchison. When I was sorting the Haldane collection in the 1980s Lady Mitchison (who lived on the Mull of Kintyre) came for a day to help and advise me, and reminisced about some of these experiences; she was then about 90 years old.


Objects recovered from Haldane’s laboratory included in the Eccentricity exhibition are:

A teapot with integral strainer

A box of dust from a tarmacadam works

Portrait bust of John Scott Burdon Sanderson (Haldane’s maternal uncle)

Leather wallet belonging to J S Burdon Sanderson