Oxford Medicine and the First World War

As preparations for the Bodleian’s 2014 exhibition to commemorate the First World War gather pace (see Oxford World War I Centenary Programme), we have been asked about the contribution of Oxford medicine to the war effort. Two figures worthy of consideration in this respect are John Scott Haldane, Reader in Physiology from 1907 to 1913, and Georges Dreyer, Oxford’s first professor of pathology, appointed in 1907.

First World War
An Australian chaplain wearing a box respirator, 1916  Credit: Lt. Ernest Brooks

Haldane’s studies in respiration and the use of oxygen included investigation of the action of carbon monoxide in mines, resulting in improved safety measures. He discovered the role of nitrogen in the ‘bends’ experienced by divers and devised a scheme of decompression which is essentially the one still in use today, expressed in the ‘Haldane Tables’. It has been said, in connection with the war,  that he invented the gas mask. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that he made a significant contribution to the production of the box respirator that became standard equipment during the war. In 1915 he was asked to advise the War Office on the poisonous gas being used in the trenches, and its effects. Following a visit to the Western Front, he concluded that satisfactory protection could only be ensured by a box respirator.

Haldane was noted for conducting many of his experiments on himself. His daughter, the writer Naomi Mitchison, recalled being required as a young girl to stand by in the home laboratory at ‘Cherwell’ on Linton Road (now the site of Wolfson College) while her father entered his sealed chamber and released various gases in order to note their effects. If he lost consciousness she was to free him and give mouth to mouth resuscitation.

In 1915, Dreyer was commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps with responsibility for the  laboratory diagnosis of enteric fever and dysentery. He was also attached to the Royal Flying Corps as Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel, and in this role he addressed problems presented by flying at high altitudes, designing a highly successful mask to deliver the right amount of oxygen to compensate for the lowered levels available as altitude increased. He was twice mentioned in despatches and for his war service was appointed CBE.

Papers of John Scott Haldane are held at the National Archives of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland. We have no information so far about the papers of Georges Dreyer.

2 thoughts on “Oxford Medicine and the First World War

  1. Thanks for your comments on Georges Dreyer’s low pressure chamber. Since writing the post I have discovered that there used to be a memory at the Dunn School of Pathology of Dreyer’s chamber being removed in pieces by a firm of plumbers when Florey came in as Professor. That would have been in or after 1935. The suggestion is that the structure would have been so badly damaged during this process that it would have been disposed of and not installed elsewhere.

  2. John West & Eric Sidebottom have this to say about Georges Dreyer’s Respiratory chamber (though sadly nothing on his paper records…):”The fate of Dreyer’s low-pressure chamber is a fascinating puzzle. In 1927 a splendid new building for the Department of Pathology was opened as a result of a grant of £100,000 from the trustees of the estate of Sir William Dunn (1833–1912), a businessman. A special room with a reinforced concrete floor was constructed to accommodate the chamber and the walls were built around it. Today the room is there, but not the chamber and its fate is a mystery. Following Dreyer’s death in 1934, the department was taken over in 1935 by Howard Florey of penicillin fame and it is possible the chamber was removed at that time. It may have gone to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in Hampshire, which was one of the few institutions in the country carrying out high-altitude research at the time. Certainly, a similar chamber was used by Bryan HC Matthews (1906–86), who became chief of the RAF Physiological Laboratory at Farnborough and carried out human experiments during simulated high altitude in 1939. This was when World War II was imminent, and there was a feeling that Britain lagged far behind Germany in this area.”(Journal of Medical Biography 14(2006), 140-9

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