50 years since Haldane’s death

December 03, 2014 11:27 pm | Updated April 07, 2016 02:40 am IST

Professor J.B.S. Haldane, eminent scientist, leaving the Law Courts after giving his evidence in "Thetis" submarine disaster inquiry.

Professor J.B.S. Haldane, eminent scientist, leaving the Law Courts after giving his evidence in "Thetis" submarine disaster inquiry.

Unfortunately not many people remember J.B.S. Haldane, who was among the greatest scientists of the 20 century. His many accomplishments were crowned by the contributions that he made to our understanding of how evolution takes place. When he died 50 years ago on December 1, 1964, he was an Indian citizen. A gifted mathematician, biologist, socialist, atheist, materialist and superb populariser of science, Haldane enjoyed his eccentricities and was acclaimed as a genius. His personality continues to stimulate and interest scholars. In 1957, at the age of 65, he and his wife, Helen Spurway (an accomplished geneticist herself) decided to leave Britain and immigrate to India.

Haldane’s “Indian Period” was unique. Never before in modern times had a Western scientist of Haldane’s calibre chosen to move to India – not to speak of becoming a citizen. He was critical of Indian science and scientists but saw hopes in young people. During his stay here he did much for research in animal and human genetics and in support of science education. He moved from Calcutta to Bhubaneswar at the invitation of another extraordinary person, Biju Patnaik, but died soon after from cancer of the colon.

Haldane had grand plans for pursuing a host of original projects with his students. He tried to inculcate a western attitude to doing scientific research in them - but with local material and minimal apparatus. He was convinced that India offered ideal conditions for investigating the genetic basis for malarial resistance. Taking advantage of the unusual marriage customs in South India, he initiated a study of genetic impact of marriages between relatives. At international science conferences, dressed in kurta and pyjamas, he projected India as his country and invited scientists to collaborate on projects in human genetics.

He tried to impart science in simple language to the common man “who must know what goes on inside the research laboratories, for some of which he pays”. Towards this end he wrote articles and scientific essays in a wide array of journals and newspapers, gave radio talks, published books and gave many lectures. In India his articles in The Hindu evoked a great response from the public, who flooded him with queries. He wrote his own epitaph in these words: “I am a part of nature and like other natural objects, from a lightening flash to a mountain range; I shall last out my time and then finish. This prospect does not worry me because some of my work will not die when I do so.”


Adjunct Faculty

National Institute of Advanced Studies


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