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John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964): Biochemist and geneticist; head of genetics at JIHI, 1927-1937. FRS 1932.

JBS HaldaneHaldane was born in Oxford, the son of distinguished physiologist, John Scott Haldane. While still at school he helped his father in research on the physiology of breathing. He was educated at Eton becoming a gifted classicist and mathematician, and in 1911 entered New College, Oxford with a mathematics scholarship. He went on to take a double first in mathematics (1912), and classics and philosophy (1914).

During the First World War Haldane served in the army. He returned to Oxford as Fellow of New College, 1919-22, and started teaching physiology. During this time he published six genetics papers and began work on human physiology using self-experimentation. He also became an active (liberal) socialist. In 1923 Haldane was appointed to the newly created Readership in Biochemistry at Cambridge University, a post he held for ten years (with a short break in 1925 when he was temporarily dismissed for being cited as co-respondent in a divorce case).

At Cambridge Haldane worked on enzymes and continued his mathematical studies of inheritance. By tacit agreement the Readership was not regarded as a full-time post, so he was able to become ‘Officer in charge of Genetical Investigations’ at JIHI in May 1927. Under this arrangement Haldane, for a salary of £400 plus £200 in expenses, was to visit the Institution fortnightly for a day and a night during the Cambridge terms, and to put in two months also in the Easter and Long (Summer) Vacations, in two continuous blocks. His job was to analyse the results obtained by the other workers at JIHI and to suggest new lines of work.

Haldane’s work at JIHI was mainly on linkage in Primula sinensis and Antirrhinum majus. His most important contribution to linkage theory was in developing this complicated theory for polyploids (1930), and in applying it to tetraploid, in comparison with diploid, P. sinensis in collaboration with Dorothea de Winton (1931, 1933, 1935). Haldane also initiated genetical and biochemical studies of plant pigments at JIHI, from 1931 in a fruitful collaboration with Rose Scott-Moncrieff. Their work confirmed and extended the idea of gene-enzyme relationships. While Haldane was at JIHI he was also Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution, 1930-32 (another part-time post), and Vice President of the Sixth International Genetical Congress, 1932. From 1932 to 1936 he was President of the Genetical Society. Haldane resigned from Cambridge and in 1933 took the chair of Genetics (a part-time post) at University College London.

His appointment at John Innes terminated with the start of his appointment at UCL as Weldon Professor of Biometry in October 1937. Between 1939 and 1945 he carried out physiological research for the British Navy and Air Force. During the 1930s Haldane began his journey towards Communism in response to the rise of Hitler and other events. He made the first of three visits to Spain to help fight Franco’s fascist forces in December 1936 and became a Communist Party member in 1942. Haldane found his politics and science in conflict when he became embroiled in the Lysenko controversy (a dispute that resulted from the suppression of Mendelian genetics in the Soviet Union under biologist and cereal breeder Trofim Lysenko).

Between 1940 and 1950 Haldane was chairman of the editorial board of the communist newspaper Daily Worker. His articles, lectures and broadcasts made him one of the best-known scientists in the world; he was one of the finest popular science writers of his day. During his time at the John Innes he published Possible Worlds (1927), a collection of popular essays on science, and a children’s book, My Friend Mr Leakey (1937). His major scientific publications of this era included Animal Biology (1930, with Julian Huxley), Enzymes (1932), and The causes of evolution (1932) which became a classic. Haldane’s main contributions to science were theoretical rather than experimental.

His greatest achievement was in developing a quantitative theory of evolution using concepts of changing gene frequency. His work unified the Darwinian theory of natural selection with Mendelian genetics and was an important contribution towards re-establishing natural selection as the accepted mechanism of evolutionary change. His early work in biochemistry laid the foundations of a mathematical theory of enzyme action. He also did much to encourage the development of human genetics during his time at University College. Like many other geneticists he was a life-long supporter of eugenic ideals, while being critical of eugenics movements. In 1957 Haldane resigned from University College to become a member of the Biometry Research Unit at the Indian Statistical Unit in Calcutta. He later led a breakaway research unit financed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. In April 1961 he became an Indian citizen and in 1962 moved to head a new Laboratory of Genetics and Biometry established by the Government of Orissa at Bhunbaneswar.


On Haldane and his writings:

On the Lysenko affair:

Audio FileJBS Haldane summarising his lecture 'Evolution before and after Bateson' - 1957 4.3Mb 4:45 secs (the full lecture is available within the JI Historical collection)

Haldane as remembered by his colleague Cyril Darlington: (memory bank; possibly audio clip)

Haldane as remembered by his colleague W J C Lawrence (memory bank)

Haldane reflects on his job at the JIHI, 1936 (memory bank)

For biographies, see:

N. W. Pirie, ‘John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, 1892-1964’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 12 (1966): 219-249.

R. Clark, J. B. S.: the life of J. B. S. Haldane. London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1968.

K. R. Dronamraju, Haldane and modern biology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1968.

Gary Werskey, The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists During the 1930s. New York: Holt, Reinheart and Winston, 1978; repr. 1988.

K. R. Dronamraju, Haldane: the life and work of J. B. S. Haldane with special reference to India. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press-Pergamon Press, 1985.

V. M. Quirke, ‘Haldane, John Burdon Sanderson (1892-1964)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Haldane’s family life is described in his mother’s autobiography: L. K. Haldane, Friends and kindred. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1961.

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