Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth - Trevor Norton (2010)


‘Certain gassing now, but maybe live to tell the tale’ – John Scott Haldane, enticing volunteers for experiments on poison gases

On the battlefield, when the blood is hot and charged with testosterone, many men may attempt something impulsively brave. In contrast, the calm, calculated courage of the self-experimenter is a more considered form of daring.

Jack Haldane had a surfeit of both hot and cool courage. He loved the war. April 1915, one of the happiest months of his life, was spent under constant bombardment. He relished night-time forays into no man’s land to eavesdrop on enemy troops or lob a bomb into their trench. Field Marshal Haig called him ‘the bravest and dirtiest officer in the army’.

He often spiced bravery with bravado. In daylight, he cycled across open ground in full view of the Germans in the belief, fortunately correct, that they would be too surprised to open fire before he made cover. He called it ‘taking a novel risk, which you are not ordered to take … and enjoying it’.

Jack wrote home that he’d got a ‘ripping job’ as a bomb officer. He made trainees attach a detonator to a fuse with their teeth. He forewarned them that if the detonator exploded their mouth would be considerably enlarged. Another drill was to play catch with lighted bombs before throwing them. He struck fear into his fellow officers when he tamped down his glowing pipe with a detonator while lecturing them on how easily accidents can happen.

Jack was trained in ‘the practice of courage’ by his father John Scott Haldane, a medical man who became a famous physiologist. Haldane took Jack down a mine when he was a small child and not surprisingly the boy was frightened. On a later trip young Jack had to descend the main shaft in darkness, leaping from one descending ladder to another. They got lost in a maze of galleries and crawled into a shaft contaminated with methane. Jack was told to stand up and recite the ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen’ speech. Within a few moments he collapsed into the breathable air below. Thus Jack learned that methane was lighter than air and not lethal, at least not in the short term.

The influence of air quality on human health fascinated John Scott Haldane. He analysed the air in slum housing, factories and sewers – a comparison in which sewers came out better than schools. It was not without risk. To collect air samples he climbed down a shaft at a sewage works in which, only hours before, five workers had been killed by hydrogen sulphide gas.

Later he stalked the London Underground, sucking up air samples with a tube. The levels of deadly carbon monoxide were so high that his findings led to the electrification of the lines.

The best place to find deadly gases was in mines. Underground explosions were commonplace and after every disaster Haldane snatched up his mining helmet and rushed off to investigate. To reassure his wife, he sent telegrams that were so incoherent they merely confirmed that he was suffering from exposure to one poisonous gas or another.

He could recognise most gases by their taste. Following an explosion at one mine he identified the contamination by sucking undiluted gas from the pipe that vented noxious gases from the mine. He immediately began to pant and his face turned blue. ‘Carbonic acid,’ he declared. Then he sucked the pipe twice more to confirm his diagnosis.

Haldane found that most of the fatalities in mine explosions resulted not from the blast, as everyone assumed, but from suffocation because of lack of oxygen or exposure to carbon monoxide. To test the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning he inhaled it whilst recording his symptoms and taking samples of his own blood for analysis. When he could no longer stand the experiment terminated and so almost did he. The carbon monoxide saturation in his blood was only four per cent lower than that found in asphyxiated miners.

He was able to take such a risk because of his fellow experimenter, a mouse. Although Haldane advised others never to use an animal if a man would do, in this case it was essential. The rapid breathing rate of the tiny creature meant that the exchange between air and blood was around twenty times faster in the mouse’s lungs compared to a man’s. The rodent should therefore be twenty times more susceptible to poisonous gases.

In their experiment they shared the same toxic mix of air and carbon monoxide. Within a minute and a half the mouse was in difficulties and was therefore rescued to recover. Haldane persisted and after half an hour he developed the same symptoms as the mouse. They had taken twenty times longer to appear. A small bird with its higher metabolic rate would be even more sensitive than a mouse.

This research led to the introduction of canaries into mines as an early-warning system for bad air. Their claws were trimmed to ensure that when they passed out they also toppled from their perch, thus making their plight obvious. Haldane also designed the canary’s cage. As soon as the bird swooned, the sides of the cage could be sealed to make a box and the carrying handle contained a tiny cylinder of oxygen to revive the canary. It also recovered twenty times faster than a man.

To demonstrate that coal dust was responsible for most underground explosions, an experimental ‘gallery’ thirty metres long was fabricated on the surface from large boilers welded end to end. The ledges inside were powdered with coal dust and a small charge was detonated at one end. The explosion shot along the pipe and tore the last two boilers to bits. Haldane and his son stood over 300 metres away, but a huge sheet of metal flew over their heads. The explosion was heard ten kilometres away. Later experiments showed that limestone dust could inhibit explosions.

Haldane also showed conclusively that pneumoconiosis resulted from the inhalation of dust. Practical problems such as these were the stimulus for almost all of his physiological work and the results greatly reduced the risks in several hazardous professions.

Haldane’s brother Richard served on the Explosives Committee at the War Office and gave a talk advertised as ‘A public lecture on explosives by Mr R. B. Haldane MP, illustrated by experiments conducted by Professor J. S. Haldane’. The police saw the poster and arrived early to clear the front three rows before the professor’s explosions cleared them more dramatically.

In the attic of his home Haldane had kitted out a laboratory with an airtight chamber so that he could investigate the effects of various gases. He sometimes enlisted his daughter Naomi to keep an eye on him and, if he collapsed, to flush out the poison gas, drag him out of the chamber and perform artificial resuscitation. She was twelve at the time.

Haldane was an eccentric with an unpruned moustache exploding from his upper lip. He became the epitome of the absent-minded professor. After working throughout the night, he rose in time to have lunch for breakfast. On one occasion he arrived late for dinner, having forgotten they were expecting guests. He shot upstairs to change, but didn’t return. His wife went to see where he had got to and found him asleep. ‘I suddenly found myself taking my clothes off,’ he explained, ‘so I thought it must be time for bed.’

In 1906 he turned his attention to the effects of high pressure when asked to investigate the physiology of deep diving. The Admiralty was concerned that many divers were coming up unconscious or paralysed with the bends. After some calculations and a few tests on goats, Haldane sent volunteer navy divers down to almost double the maximum permitted depth of thirty metres. Thereafter the world depth record was broken time after time. He produced the first set of decompression tables to get divers safely back to the surface and established the ‘Haldane principles’ on which all subsequent tables were based. Haldane had determined that a diver could rise to half the maximum depth of the dive without ill effects. Thereafter he must ascend towards the surface in stages, stopping at prescribed depths to breathe away the dangerous nitrogen he had accumulated while below under higher pressure.

In April 1915 the Germans launched their first attacks using poison gas. They released a green cloud of 168 tonnes of deadly chlorine that drifted towards the Allied positions as fast as a man could run. Many were blinded, turned blue and writhed in agony. ‘Glue’ poured from their mouths. Chlorine strips the lining from the lungs and turns it into mucus that blocks the windpipe and fills the lungs. Some soldiers died in their trenches. Fields of browned grass were littered with dead cows.

Richard Haldane, now the Lord Chancellor, asked his brother to identify the poison gases being used by the Germans and devise some protection for the troops. Haldane rushed to France to attend the post-mortem of a victim of the first gas attack. He immediately diagnosed chlorine inhalation, because he’d had ‘an alarming personal experience in a sewer connected with bleaching works’.

Kitchener entreated British mothers to make gas masks for the troops out of stockinet and cotton wool. Was it just a ploy to distract an anxious populace and make them feel that they were doing something to help? Ninety thousand of these home-made ‘gas masks’ were dispatched to the front. They were worn by the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers when they were subjected to a gas attack. Afterwards it was reported that the Lancs fusiliers had ‘ceased to exist for military purposes’.

Meanwhile, the Haldane house echoed with the sound of coughing and retching from the attic, signifying that the experiments were progressing well. Haldane and two collaborating chemists were testing prototype respirators in the sealed chamber filled with deadly chlorine gas. Even chlorine at a concentration of only 0.1per cent made it practically impossible to take a breath and irritation of the eyes was excessive. Haldane’s daughter Naomi and their lodger Aldous Huxley shredded woollens to provide the absorbent filling for experimental respirators. They tried stockings, vests, Naomi’s knitted cap and Aldous’s scarf. They also raided the kitchen for chemical absorbents.

In the meantime soldiers were dying from gas attacks so Haldane came up with makeshift devices that could be improvised by soldiers in the field. If they breathed through a handkerchief filled with soil or a bottle with the bottom knocked out and filled with damp rags, these primitive filters gave some protection to the lungs. The eyes could be shielded with gauze dipped in linseed oil without completely obscuring the soldier’s vision.

Haldane also set up a laboratory in France with an experimental chamber. The guinea pigs were Haldane, an associate from his mine-research days who was a conscientious objector, and Jack, temporarily seconded from his unit. They tested the effects of various concentrations of chlorine gas with and without a respirator. The chamber contained an exercise wheel to ensure that the respirator worked while the wearer was running away. Jack later explained the drill: ‘As each of us got sufficiently affected by gas to render his lungs duly irritable, another took his place … Some had to go to bed for a few days, and I was very short of breath and incapable of running for a month or so.’ Despite his weakness, Jack was called back to active duty. En route to the front he was badly wounded by an explosion. It saved his life, for in the following few days almost every officer in his battalion was killed.

They eventually came up with an effective respirator. The only recognition awarded to anyone involved was a Military Cross for the brave young adjutant who opened the car door for the general when he visited the laboratory.

Soon the gas masks were being manufactured at the rate of 70,000 per day, although at first the factory accidentally used caustic soda instead of washing soda as the absorbent.

Naomi believed that her father’s lungs never fully recovered from his poison-gas tasting sessions. At the age of seventy-five he collapsed and developed pneumonia. Haldane was confined to an oxygen tent, a device he had invented. He pioneered the use of oxygen to relieve damaged lungs. John Scott Haldane passed away with a look of intense interest, as though monitoring a critical experiment in physiology.

Three months after his death The Times announced that he was to give a public lecture. It was entitled ‘Miracles’.

Haldane preferred to experiment on himself or others who were sufficiently interested in the work to ignore pain and fear, much as a soldier would ‘risk his life or endure wounds in order to gain victory’. The Haldane family motto was ‘Suffer’. When young Naomi fell heavily and cried, her father made it clear that this was ‘strictly forbidden in the code of courage’. He was not inordinately brave. He had no head for heights and was too nervous to learn to swim, but the combination of scientific curiosity and the desire to help his fellow-men generated courage. And it was contagious.

Even as a child Jack donated blood for his father’s experiments and cajoled his school chums to do the same. Young Jack was intellectually precocious. On an expedition his father realised that they had forgotten to bring log tables. ‘Never mind,’ he said, ‘Jack will calculate a set for us.’

He became one of the most influential biologists of his day. He laid the foundations of both human genetics and population genetics. By marrying genetics with Darwinian natural selection he also created modern evolutionary biology. In 1938 Jack was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, as his father had been. He was forty-six years old, bald, with twinkling eyes and the air of a mischievous walrus.

He turned his lively mind to the problems of the looming conflict with Nazi Germany. In Madrid during the Spanish Civil War he had spent his time minutely recording the results of air raids, noting what gave protection and what did not. He published an article on the mathematics of air-raid protection, as well as a practical guide to air-raid precautions that sold well. He tried in vain to persuade the British government of the value of deep shelters. To prove the inadequacy of the flimsy above-ground Anderson shelters, he offered to sit in one while explosives were detonated close by. Jack condemned the government’s policy as leaving London unprotected. Fortunately, when air raids began Londoners used their initiative by breaking into the Underground stations to use them as deep shelters.

Even before war had broken out, Jack had alerted the British government to the potentially destructive power of atomic bombs and later he played a major role in evaluating the genetic damage caused by radiation. He also put forward a fanciful scheme for the release of thousands of fish tagged with tiny magnets to trigger magnetic mines.

His moment came three months before war erupted, when the submarine HMS Thetis sank during trials in Liverpool Bay, having dived with both ends of its torpedo tubes open. Though the vessel was intact with its stern protruding from the water, only four of the hundred and eight men on board survived. Rightly fearing that there was no help available at the surface, the crew left it too late to escape. Almost half the victims were civilian mechanics and the trade unions asked Jack to represent their interests at the public inquiry.

With a couple of colleagues he locked himself in a pressurised steel chamber to simulate the effects of incarceration in a disabled submarine. They remained there for fourteen and a half hours and, as the carbon dioxide concentration rose, became too sick and incapacitated to put on the Davis submarine-escape gear.

It brought home to Jack the terror of being trapped underwater. He confided to his sister how terrible it must have been for men trapped in the Thetis’s escape chamber with the water rising, unable to get the hatch open. He thought it would be advisable for physiologists to research the effect of abnormal conditions on people before they were killed by them.

He convinced the Admiralty that to increase the chances of submariners surviving in a disabled submarine he needed to investigate how people reacted when breathing a deteriorating atmosphere under pressure. Thus he became one of the few card-carrying Communists to carry out secret research for the War Office.

He enlisted four members of the International Brigades (because they would be cool under pressure), his secretary, and a research student who later became his wife. All of them were tested, if not to destruction, then at least to unconsciousness. Almost every experiment ended with someone having a seizure, bleeding or vomiting. ‘Good,’ Jack would say, ‘that’s another point on the graph.’ Nosebleeds were so common that you could usually track him down by following the trail of bloody cotton wool.

The experiments were conducted in a ‘pressure pot’, a steel chamber like a boiler on its side, measuring 2.4 metres long by 1.2 metres in diameter. Two or three people could squeeze in, but they couldn’t begin to stand up. The guinea pigs had no lamp or telephone. They communicated with the exterior by tapping in code or holding up messages to the tiny porthole.

Jack described what it was like to be in the chamber:

‘I am breathing rapidly and deeply and my pulse is 110 … my writing is a little wobbly. But why cannot my companion behave himself? He is making silly jokes and trying to sing. His lips are rather purple … I feel quite unaffected; in fact I have just thought of a very funny story. It is true I can’t stand without support. My companion suggests some oxygen from the cylinder … To humour him I take a few breaths. The result is startling. The electric light becomes so much brighter that I fear the fuse will melt. The noise of the pump increases fourfold. My note-book, which should have contained records of my pulse rate, turns out to be filled with the often repeated but seldom legible statement that I am feeling much better, and remarks about my colleague, of which the least libellous is that he is drunk. I put down the oxygen tube and relapse into a not unpleasant state of mental confusion.’

A much larger chamber could be flooded to a depth of over two metres so that strenuous tests could be carried out underwater. High pressure and cold water were a bad combination. When clad only in shirt and slacks, immersed in a bath of melting ice and breathing an aberrant atmosphere at a pressure ten times greater than normal, unconsciousness came mercifully soon. Even hardened divers suffered severe claustrophobia in this tank. Jack admitted: ‘It was a queer experience to wait underwater in the dark tank, knowing that one might lose consciousness any moment, and perhaps wake up with a broken back, conceivably not wake up at all.’

His father called the pressure pot ‘the chamber of horrors’. It is easy to see why. During compression it became hot in the chamber, in the same way as a bicycle pump warms when you inflate the tyres. Jack fanned himself with a folded newspaper, but it tore to shreds in air so dense that a bluebottle was unable to fly. When decompressing, the cooling damp air filled the chamber with fog. After a few weeks Jack’s wristwatch ground to a halt under the weight of rust on the mainspring. His wife bought him an airtight watch. It crumpled the first time he compressed.

The speed at which they changed pressure sometimes caused problems. Jack’s fastest ‘dive’ was from one to seven atmospheres in ninety seconds, during which he experienced the pressure changes of a pilot diving vertically at twice the speed of sound. Rapid ‘ascents’ were more dangerous, causing one of his filled teeth to emit a high-pitched scream and explode because of air pockets that couldn’t vent fast enough. A colleague had his right lung collapse on several occasions. If both lungs had gone, he would have died. Thanks to his lung problem he failed the army medical and, ribbed by his colleagues, he was able to sit out the war in the ‘comfort’ of the chamber of horrors.

Minor bends were commonplace. Haldane was partially paralysed in his left buttock, but felt fortunate that ‘it wasn’t in a more important sensory region’. He also burst both his eardrums. They healed, leaving small holes in the membranes. It made him slightly deaf, a small price to pay for the ability to blow smoke rings through his ears.

At that time working at pressures equivalent to depths of sixty metres called for exceptional skill and technical capability. The simulated dives to 120 metres achieved by Jack’s team approached the lowest depths then conceivable. The research changed the procedures for escaping from submarines and established sixty-six metres as the lower limit for the safe use of compressed air whether escaping or diving.

Wartime continually threw up new problems and created an urgency to solve them. Frogmen and underwater Charioteers (manned-torpedo operators) used oxygen re-breathing apparatus because it didn’t give off tell-tale bubbles, so the team investigated the effects of oxygen under pressure. This required one of the most exhaustive programmes of diving experiments ever attempted – more than a thousand ‘dives’ in toxic conditions. Oxygen, the gas that supports all life on the planet, is poisonous under pressure, causing nausea, paralysis and convulsions violent enough to break a bone. Jack suffered crushed vertebrae and a dislocated hip from a sudden muscular contraction. Of particular danger was the unpredictability of the seizure. On one occasion the same volunteer lasted eighty-five minutes at a pressure of three atmospheres, another time only thirteen minutes. They established that breathing pure oxygen was dangerous below eighteen metres.

After about a hundred experiments, Jack became so sensitive that he began to twitch violently after only five minutes’ exposure to oxygen. These tests sealed in a pressurised ‘coffin’ even got to fearless Jack. He had nightmares in which he couldn’t escape from the chamber. But it didn’t stop him from doing it again.

When the Admiralty introduced miniature submarines, they asked Jack to see if it was possible to survive a long journey submerged in such a tiny vessel and for a diver to leave it underwater to plant a mine on a ship’s hull and then re-enter the sub. Despite his distaste for submarines, Jack and his stalwart collaborator Martin Case incarcerated themselves in a mock mini-sub made of steel and placed on the bottom of Portsmouth harbour, sealed in like ‘shrimp paste in a jar’. As the tank was being lowered towards the water the air-raid siren went, and so did the crane driver, leaving them dangling in mid-air with bombs falling all around. They stayed locked in the submerged ‘sub’ for two days with the light and telephone links working only intermittently. A ship passed too close overhead and the tank was torn from its moorings, shaking up the prisoners inside. They concluded that with one cylinder of oxygen the crew could live comfortably for three days and stay submerged for twelve hours without any refreshing of the air. Jack’s idea of comfort was, of course, not quite the same as yours or mine. Later he exposed himself to a pressure of ten atmospheres and then plunged into water at zero degrees Celsius as a rehearsal for going for a sub-sea stroll in Arctic waters. These experiments paved the way for the successful raid on the battleship Tirpitz.

In 1943 the War Office anticipated that, come D-Day, frogmen would be expected to clear mines and shore defences. The divers might have to surface quickly to avoid underwater explosions. If they breathed a mixture of air and oxygen they could come up faster in safety. The trick was to get the proportions right: too much air and they would get the bends, too much oxygen and they would suffer fits. So Jack and his wife were compressed to the equivalent of twenty-one metres down to try out various gas mixtures. If either of them got the bends, they gave themselves a day off. They showed that a surfacing procedure, which according to the tables should take forty-seven minutes, could be done safely in two. This gas mixture was used in 1944 by a hundred and twenty frogmen who cleared the sea of obstacles the day before the D-Day landings.

Other contributions to the war effort included reviewing all the recently published scientific work from Germany and advising the Royal Air Force on bomb-aiming devices. Jack also carried out many statistical studies on topics such as the interpretation of casualty figures and the best tactics for shooting down V-l rockets. His only honour for all his war work was to be included in the Nazis’ list of those to be arrested when England was invaded.

During the war he strolled into a pub in Gosport dressed as a Nazi officer accompanied by Cam Wright, the expert on underwater explosions, in full diving dress including leaden boots and copper helmet. No one turned a hair.

In 1964 he was diagnosed as having a malignant tumour. He wrote a poem called ‘Cancer’s a funny thing’. It begins:

I wish I had the voice of Homer

To sing of rectal carcinoma …

I read his poem for the first time while in hospital waiting for an operation on my rectal carcinoma. It was what Jack would have called ‘a singular and interesting experience’. I was luckier than he was. Within a few months of his operation science had lost one of its most gifted and courageous spirits. Both he and his father left their bodies for medical research and teaching. After all, they had been used for those purposes during their lifetime.


John Scott Haldane’s candle hat – for detecting expolosive gases?