Tuesday, June 27, 2006

History in the Unmaking


Up at dawn yesterday, on the road at 6 o'clock to sneak in ahead of the traffic congestion in Oxford - being a biographer was like having a proper job for the day, commute and all.
I was on the trail of the papers of C.G.Douglas - catalogued in Bath and now stored in the Oxford Physiology Lab. They are part of the Sherrington Collection, attached to a fine physiology library, but Oxford got rid of its librarians years ago giving their own spin to the idea of a 'virtual library'. No loans, and normally no access to research materials. The boxes I needed were in a cupboard in the corridor.
The staff were most helpful. A mini tour of the complex brought me to photos of my subject, J.S.Haldane - plus a little exhibition of realia from his Pike's Peak exhibition, and his pioneering gas analysis apparatus. It was a relief to be in a place where he is not just known but held in high regard.
Despite the high regard, a whole stack of his correspondence has gone missing. We rummaged away in unsorted boxes stacked on high shelves in a storage room. Handwritten papers by J.B.S.Haldane, his son, emerged - but not those letters. I keep finding reference to spectacular material (including his own autobiographical writings) that have disappeared.
The Douglas archive was a mini treasure though. Douglas was a colleague on that 1911 Pike's Peak expedition, the most courageous and valiant of researchers into the poison gases of the first world war, and clearly held Haldane in a position of high esteem and love. It was encouraging to find so many references among the papers in which people expressed their respect and devotion to Haldane. It keeps me going, knowing that I am unearthing a splendid life in so many regards.
The lab is postwar, though built to its 1930s design. Across the way the lab that Haldane knew was busy being demolished - the photo here is just about the last that can ever be taken. Meanwhile Haldane is acknowledged in a tiny road on the campus (see the nameplate top right in the picture), a turning off Sherrington's grander Sherrington Road. Sherrington did well to get so many plaudits. Like all those others who came before me, however, in coming close to Haldane I stay convinced that I have found myself the 'main man'.

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