The second title of this book is The Journey of Our Lifetime; I have been privileged to follow the lifetime of a very remarkable man from Scotland, John Scott Haldane. Born into an aristocratic family, Haldane was comfortable in every human situation, from sampling the air in the slums of Dundee, to working in the rarefied atmosphere of New College, Oxford. His investigations brought him into contact with miners, divers, munitions workers, soldiers, engineers, scientists, politicians, and royalty. He counted Einstein among his friends and shared with him the distinction of being awarded the oldest prize in science, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London. Uncomfortable with the constraints of academic life, he established a laboratory at his home in Oxford. His colleagues were known as “partners” and he would readily discuss his research with anyone who would listen.
Haldane was truly a polymath, readily crossing disciplinary boundaries in the investigation of a multitude of human conditions. His clarity of thought produced solutions to medical problems that many still allege to be unresolved today, despite astonishing advances in medical technology. In his famous book Respiration, published by Yale University Press in 1922, he explains the importance of breathing, not just to gain sufficient oxygen to sustain life and health, but to ensure healing from illness and injury.
It has been the interface between engineering and medicine that proved an irresistible fascination for me and it led to a career in industrial medicine. Immersion in thousands of papers across many disciplines, decades of treating deep sea divers and hospital patients with high levels of oxygen in pressure chambers has amply confirmed Haldane’s contention that the oxygen in air is often not enough. Giving more oxygen, possible with a modest increase in the pressure around us, can greatly extend the envelope of natural recovery.
The developing use of oxygen treatment in medicine was sidelined after WW2 by the spectacular growth of the multinational pharmaceutical industry. But, as Haldane would surely have pointed out, it is obvious that all recovery, whether natural, assisted by drugs, or induced by a placebo effect, is only possible when there is sufficient oxygen present and, moreover, there is no substitute. He would have been astonished, although probably not surprised, by the pivotal discovery that oxygen actually is the controller of our most important genes. The implications of this research can be distilled down to a simple statement: We need to use more oxygen in medical practice and, especially, in the treatment of disorders of the brain. The allegation that giving more oxygen is “alternative” medicine is unscientific and absurd: Illness and injury always reduce the oxygen available to cells and healing only occurs when adequate levels are restored. It is drugs that are alternative.
I hope that others will share my excitement over the latest discoveries about the molecule of life and also gain the satisfaction that comes from using oxygen in treatment. There is so much more to do: To quote Winston Churchill after the pivotal victory of WW2 at El Alamein: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Philip B. James