August 05, 2007

Suffer and Survive - Gas Attacks, Miners' Canaries, Spacesuits and the Bends: The Extreme Life of Dr J. S. Haldane by Martin Goodman

This book is hitting the shops now but, courtesy of being the author's nephew, I've been reading an advanced copy over the last couple of weeks.

It is a very enjoyable read. Martin's writing is assured and unpretentious but very vivid when necessary. He has researched thoroughly enough that he has the detail to really bring the characters to life.

The era, late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain, is a fascinating one and not written about enough. Suffer and Survive, like George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England, gives us a glimpse of the world before the First World War. A world making the transition, in fits and starts, from that of the Industrial Revolution to one we might more easily recognise today.

Haldane's story is well worth telling. He was born to one of the oldest Scottish aristocratic families. The Haldanes already had quite a history of public service - the book's title is inspired by their motto "Suffer". J.S. Haldane extended that tradition. His exploration of how the human body interacts with its environment advanced science and also saved thousands upon thousands of lives.

Just taking his more famous creations Haldane was responsible for canaries in mines, gas masks and diving tables. However, he paid quite the price for incredible discoveries, subjecting his own body to poison gas and extreme conditions including alarmingly regular carbon monoxide poisoning in order to understand the effects of environmental conditions on the human body. Indeed, at times this book can get a little lost in descriptions of the physical peril faced by Haldane and his various research partners before being snapped back to its narrative.

Like many great popular science books this gives an idea of how incredible the scientific process itself has been. It provides a remarkable case-study of the lengths to which people have gone to increase the sum of human knowledge. Hopefully it might cause us all to be a little more appreciative of the legacy suffering survivors down the ages have left us.


El Dave. said...

Haldane was one of the great self-experimenters. There was a great TV programme recently. Some of the others greats are Werner Forssman, who did the first cardiac catheterisation on himself, winning a Nobel Prize, and the great Dr Barry Marshall. Marshall was convinced that a bacteria, H. pylori, caused almost all stomach ulcers, rather than stress or curry. No-one believed him until he proved it by infecting himself with a petri dish full of H. pylori.

Don't tell the Health & Safety Executive!

I look forward to reading the book.


Anonymous said...

What about the guy who invented the diving suit...

Gracchi said...

Yes and of course Marie Curie and her husband Pierre who died from radioaction poisoning that they had dealt to themselves. Great post Matt. I think what is interesting about people like Haldane is the way that they acheived so much on their own- if you think of the big scientific discoveries today often they are made by teams like at CERN but these guys weren't working like that at all. They had all the disadvantages and advantages of being around before the mass proffesionalisation of sicence.