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.
|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.