Old-school hero

Suffer and Survive

By Martin Goodman

Simon & Schuster, 320pp, 14.99

HE INVENTED THE GAS MASK after witnessing the corpse-strewn trenches of Ypres, revolutionised miners' safety equipment after crawling through the wreckage of collapsed mines in the Rhondda Valley, devised divers' tables to counteract the "bends" after plunging into the depths of the deepest lochs, and studied the effect of high altitudes on the human body by climbing the highest mountains in Scotland and Colorado.

Dr John Scott Haldane, born in Edinburgh in 1860, was single-handedly responsible for a string of inventions and innovations which saved untold thousands of lives in war and peace and, as a serial self-experimenter, regularly risked his own life in the process.

His investigations into the human respiratory system were recognised as landmarks of medical science. But one of the greatest physiologists of the Victorian age somehow receded into history's shadows, as if blotted out in the glare of acclaimed Scottish medical pioneers such as Simpson and Fleming. Most of his family, including his son, the geneticist Jack Haldane, and daughter, novelist Naomi Mitchison, had books written about them, but their father has eluded the biographers until now.

Martin Goodman's vivid and reverential biography is, incredibly, the first ever published about Haldane, a medical adventurer in an epic quest to personally explore the limits of human endurance and save lives.

The fourth son of a staunchly religious father, he was born at 17 Charlotte Square on 2 May 1860. His father was a writer to the signet of Cloan and the young Haldane grew up in a bustling upper-class household surrounded by maidservants and nannies.

IF THE TITLE OF GOODMAN'S book, Suffer and Survive, seems melodramatic, it is taken directly from the Haldane family motto and seems appropriate for a colourful, highly dramatic life of risk and research which took Haldane from the sterile wards of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary into the depths of the sewers, mines and trenches and up to the highest mountain tops.

Educated at Edinburgh Academy, Edinburgh University and the University of Jena in Germany, Haldane graduated in medicine at Edinburgh University in 1884. But after three years as general practitioner at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, became restless and grew increasingly interested in "the health and wellbeing of communities" rather than individuals, taking a post as demonstrator of physiology at University College, Dundee in 1887.

In the heavily industrialised city he found near-epidemic levels of disease sweeping through the population and developed a life-long obsession with the effects on general public health of the composition and quality of air in workplaces and homes.

Touring the overcrowded slums and dust-clogged jute factories, Haldane discovered squalid living and working environments that contained dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide and poisonous hydrogen sulphide. His far-reaching report shocked the authorities and resulted in the introduction of new methods of ventilation and sparked the first glimmers of a reforming housing policy.

But Suffer and Survive is much more than a litany of the gruesome realities of the industrial revolution and is often surprisingly funny, littered with anecdotes and quotes from Haldane's letters. He regarded touring the Dundee sewers as a great adventure and gleefully notes that one of the sewers "smelt like an orange grove" - it was the main outlet from Keiller's marmalade works, stuffed with the remnants of bitter oranges.

Haldane later moved to Oxford and worked with his uncle, John Burdon-Sanderson, a professor of physiology.

Researching the poor air quality of the then coal-powered London Underground, he proved that the level of carbon monoxide was unacceptably high by collecting air samples in jars, and as a result of his investigations the lines were gradually electrified.

Haldane's long association with the mining community was founded on his fascination with the poisonous, incendiary mine gases which regularly claimed hundreds of lives; one fifth of the working population of Great Britain was engaged in coal mining. Ready to rush to the latest colliery disaster at a moment's notice, Haldane crawled into still-burning mine shafts, testing the air, dissecting pit ponies and performing post mortems on the charred remains of men and boys.

His research culminated in a report to the home secretary which pinpointed the causes of colliery explosions (combustible gases produced by the oxidation processes in coal and soil) and it was Haldane who introduced canaries into the mines. The birds acted as early-warning systems, reacting instantly to poisonous gases and, overwhelmed, keeling over from their perches. It says a lot about the man that the "Haldane miners' box" was a humane device, which pumped oxygen to the birds as soon as they collapsed, ensuring their recovery as the miners raced for safety.

There is a humorous side to this, and a Pythonesque cartoon canary perched cheekily on the book's cover beside a sepia photograph of a deep-eyed, heavily moustached Haldane sets the tone. Goodman is also successful in treading a fine line between meticulous medical detail and Haldane's enthusiastic, relentlessly adventurous nature.

Thousands of workers in the suffocating mines of the Rhondda Valley and the tin mines of Cornwall owed their survival to Haldane's innovations which - like his diving tables and decompression chambers which virtually eradicated the deadly crippling "bends" suffered by deep-sea divers - were soon employed the world over.

A zealous believer in self-experimentation, Haldane routinely inhaled toxic gases and swallowed poisons as an integral part of his work, noting the effects on his body and mind before blacking out.

During the Boer War he produced an damning report for the British government which outlined the nutritional deficiencies in the rations given to captured Boer women and children, many of whom were dying in the world's first concentration camps - sadly, as he reported, a British invention - in the Transvaal. The camps remained but the prisoners' rations were changed and fatalities fell.

But his greatest achievement came in the early days of the First World War. When German scientists first released poison gas into the battlefields in France, Haldane hurried to the western front and into the trenches to identify the chlorine-based gas. On his return to Oxford, he inhaled the fumes to gauge the effects. Based on his findings Haldane invented the first, fully functional gas mask and personally badgered the army into supplying them to troops at the western front immediately.

He died at his home in Oxford on the stroke of midnight, 14 March 1936 having just returned from Iran where he had been investigating cases of heat stroke on oil refinery workers. On his way home he had stopped off in Liverpool to finalise the ventilation of the Mersey tunnel. He was 75.

Goodman's portrait of Haldane is of an entirely modest man, an archaic concept in our age of instant celebrity. One of the reasons he disappeared into obscurity is that he had no desire for personal fame and was the arguably the least vainglorious of the pre-eminent Victorians.

If the admirable doctor did have a dark side, it is not one which Goodman explored. But he successfully avoids what might have been a dry academic study and delivers - to use Victorian terminology - a darn good yarn about a darn good man while weaving through a maze of scientific facts and figures.

• Martin Goodman is at The Edinburgh International Book Festival on 14 August.