Successful Parenting

More, perhaps than a personal picture could, this male from Rajasthan reflects the life of John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (aka JBS,1892–1964). Heavily moustached, like his father, John Scott Haldane, JBS survived mustard gas attacks during the First World War. 

The context

Beside the familiar moustache he copied, John Scott Haldane adopted his family motto, “Suffer.” Significantly for men whose research would save millions of lives in the twentieth century, the Haldane's laughed at personal pain others would find unbearable.

For John Scott Haldane, awareness of the human response, whether to harmful gas, to lack of oxygen for deep sea divers, or to frigid cold for airplane pilots was essential for understanding his subject. Animals, he argued, could not show this response. Therefore, he conducted self-experimentation, preferring to work with people, beginning with himself and his son. 

Accordingly, JBS learned from his father’s parenting that pain was a personal matter. On reflection, his sister and mother describe a ten-year apprenticeship that brought this lesson home to JBS. At age eight, he was the “bottle washer” who followed his father deep into mineshafts to collect “bad air.” They recalled how John Scott Haldane demonstrated the effect of such air to his son. (Please note, the following is not recommended.) Over a century ago, the father instructed his son

to stand up and recite Mark Antony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, beginning “Friends, Romans, countrymen.” (Soon) Jack began to pant, and somewhere about “the noble Brutus” his legs gave way and he collapsed onto the floor, where the air was fine.

The son later noted in a private letter: “In this way I learnt that firedamp (one example of 'bad air') is lighter than air and not dangerous to breathe.”1

The Result

Like his father, JBS distinguished himself in major British and international research projects. He had no degree in biology. Yet, he taught this subject at Cambridge university.

 In 1961, he renounced British citizenship to return to the country where he recovered from wounds suffered during the First World War. There Haldane, once described as “the last man who might know all there was to be known” spent his final years as an Indian citizen, Head of the Genetics and Biometry Laboratory run the Government of Orissa.

  1. See Source below, pp.114-5. Italics supplied, for emphasis []


Chapter Six, “On Being a Guinea Pig” in Popularizing Science: The Life and Work of JBS Haldane.

Dronamraju, Krishna R. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Keeping Cool And Other Essays

J. B. S. Haldane, Sept 1939

Prof. J.B.S. Haldane, 72, Dies; British Geneticist and Writer; Developed Simple Treatment for Tetanus—Marxist Quit His Homeland for India

2 Dec 1964, The New York Times

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane FRS (1892-1964): Autobiographical Notes (circa 1940)

JBS Haldane: the man who knew almost everything

Monk, Ray. “” The New Statesman, 4 Nov 2020.

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane

Indian Statistical Institute

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