The extraordinary life of JS Haldane

Inventor of the decompression tables that transformed diving

Author: Pat
28th February 2012

Modern divers have JS Haldane to thank for the routine way in which they avoid the bends.

Born into the Scottish aristocracy in 1860, John Scott Haldane was drawn to science even in childhood. His real interest was respiration, in particular the breathing of gases and their effect on the human body. In 1879 at an age when most would be making jokes about it, Haldane wrote a report on the effects of stale air in the toilets of his boarding school in Sussex. He was on course ultimately to become a professor of physiology at Oxford.

His real interest was respiration

Considering his chosen field, Haldane was certainly alive at just the right time. In the late 19th Century the industrial Victorians were busy building complex machines, digging tunnels deep underground, discovering toxic metals and pushing the boundaries of chemistry. All of which were fraught with poisonings, suffocations and ill health.

The mining industry in particular was notorious, and Haldane found himself drawn to investigating mining accidents. He discovered that miners poisoned by carbon monoxide were relieved by pure oxygen – a technique used in emergency rooms and familiar to all divers today.

His significant work with compressed air came to the attention of the military, and in particular the Royal Navy. Diving was not new at this point but divers were severely limited in what they could do because of The Bends. If military divers were to be used for deeper salvaging, repairs at sea and in warfare, someone needed to tackle the problem.

Backed by military funding, Haldane constructed a pressure chamber in London and set about testing it on various animal subjects. Essentially a seven-foot boiler turned on its side, the frightening chamber was not for claustrophobics: it had two six-inch windows and a single manhole entrance. Goats, sheep and human beings alike would spend time inside as research subjects.

Carving up dead animals gradually revealed the true nature of nitrogen upon fatty tissues. But perhaps the most fascinating feature of Haldane’s work was his willingness to be test subject. He would often spend hours inside the chamber, pushing the limits and relying on an external technician to operate it and prevent serious injury or death. Perhaps even more astonishing, he often tested it on his 12-year old son JBS Haldane, who would go on to refine his father’s work of physiology (and who is a book in himself.)

The result of years of painstaking trial-and-error testing was Haldane’s decompression tables. At last the Royal Navy had a guide and could use diving in a practical fashion. It adopted the tables in 1908, followed by the US navy in 1915.

The Bends could be defeated, and staged decompression began to open up the ocean depths.

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