Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The J B S Haldane papers

J B S Haldane united Darwin's theory of evolution with Mendel's laws of inheritance, and was one of the most colourful figures in 20th-century genetics.

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Collection overview

J B S Haldane (1892-1964) was at once an intellectual combatant who relished disputes, especially with authority, and a genial, accessible and vivid communicator. He was quite capable of holding two conflicting views at the same time, and yet he did more than anyone previously to mould Darwin's theory of evolution into a robust quantitative framework, making it possible to calculate the effect of natural selection on different populations.

Having held early positions at both Oxford and Cambridge, Haldane moved to a new chair in genetics at University College London in 1933, and he remained there until he left the UK in 1957. His major scientific legacy is a series of papers, published between 1924 and 1934 under the title 'A Mathematical Theory of Natural and Artificial Selection'. He also published the first evidence of genetic linkage in humans in a study of haemophilia and colour-blindness conducted with fellow UCL geneticist Julia Bell.

Haldane introduced many to the fascination of science through his popular columns in the 'Daily Worker' and books such as 'Daedalus: or Science and the Future' (1924), 'Possible Worlds and Other Essays' (1928) and 'Science and Everyday Life' (1940).

This collection covers the period of Haldane's life from his appointment to UCL in 1933 onwards. Records relating to the earlier part of his life are held by the National Library of Scotland. His papers document the breadth of his interests across science, religion, politics and almost anything else you care to name.

Profile

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane grew up in a household where scientific experiments were part of everyday life. His father was the eminent Oxford physiologist John Scott Haldane, and from an early age the younger Haldane engaged in experiments on respiration that more than once rendered him briefly unconscious.

After studying both mathematics and classics at Oxford, Haldane served with the Black Watch during World War I and was wounded twice. He returned to a fellowship at Oxford, and soon afterwards moved to Cambridge as reader in biochemistry. In 1933 he was invited to University College London to take up a new chair in genetics. UCL was the home of the Galton Laboratory of Eugenics, then presided over by another key figure in mathematical genetics, R A Fisher. Between them, Fisher, Haldane and the American mathematician Sewall Wright brought together the theories of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel to form the 'new synthesis' of evolutionary theory.

A lifelong Marxist, Haldane never hid his contempt for capitalism and imperialism. He visited Spain three times during the Spanish Civil War to assist the Republican cause, and later served as chairman of the editorial board of the Communist Party newpaper the 'Daily Worker'. After World War II, he left the Communist Party, partly on account of the corruption of Soviet science.

He was a constant thorn in the side of the administrations at the institutions where he worked. Writing in 1939, he admitted: "Whilst I may have been a credit to my universities, I have been a trial in other ways." In 1957 he resigned his chair and left Britain to work in India. There he adopted Indian dress, encouraged young Indian scientists and continued to publish his own research; after three years he took Indian citizenship. With him went his wife, Helen Spurway, a former student whom he had married in 1945 after his divorce from the writer Charlotte Burghes.

He was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1963, and died within a year, but not before penning a poem for the 'New Statesman' entitled 'Cancer's a funny thing'. It began: "I wish I had the voice of Homer / To sing of rectal carcinoma…"

Originals held by... 

This material has been provided by UCL Special Collections where originals may be consulted.

My own suspicion is that the world is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

J B S Haldane, 'Possible Worlds', 1928

Digitised book

Selected genetics papers by Haldane

Selected genetics papers by Haldane

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In The Timeline

1915: J B S Haldane shows genetic linkage in a mammal

J B S Haldane shows genetic linkage in a mammal

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