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Helen Spurway


JBS Haldane's trouble with personal relationships
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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Jean Clark, whom I worked with for many years and we published many papers together, started... when I went into the lab she was the technician in the lab, but she took a part-time degree at Birkbeck and became a graduate student of Haldane's. She could say anything she liked to Prof and he'd take it. It wasn't that Haldane minded, it was just that most graduate students never cottoned on that that's what you were meant to do, they found him so frightening. So he didn't find it easy to make friends. I'd like to tell you a story about Sheila if I may, my wife. Since she's not here. When Haldane, this was many years later, when he... he had a major operation for cancer in... in University College Hospital, and when he came out to convalesce, he stayed with us for a couple of months 'cause, his wife, Helen, was still in India. And Helen... Sheila, you know, looked after him, cooked his porridge for breakfast, and he was very sweet with the kids and so on. And then he was due to... he was better, he was due to fly back to India, I drove him to the airport. And I can remember it vividly, it was snowing, beautiful. This was... I remember we had to drive up over Hampstead Heath. And without saying anything, I stopped the car and we got out, and we looked at the snow, and he said, 'I'm never going to see this again.' Of course, he was going to the plains of India, he probably wasn't. And then, it tells you something about him, he said, 'I want you to say good-bye to Sheila for me.' Sorry. He said, 'I don't think she knows how much I love her.' Well, for God's sake, why couldn't you tell her? But he didn't find personal relationships easy, and Sheila is not somebody who can shout back, like I can, she's a gentler person than I am. And he just couldn't tell her. So I think he did have real difficulties with personal relationships. I don't why, I think it had something to do with Eton, which can ruin anybody's life. I think it had something to do with his parents. His mother wanted him to become prime minister, his father wanted him to become a great scientist. I think he could have done either, but he could not do both, and I think they fought over him. And I think a combination of his parents fighting over him, having this really rather ghastly public school education, just made it hard for him to form easy personal relationships.

[Q] Because he'd had statesmen in his ancestry as well as...

Oh yes, indeed, the Haldanes were both politicians and scientists. And I think, in some ways, it's a great pity, because he never was able to build up a kind of big department or a school of followers, you know. On the other hand, of course, it did mean that he continued to do his own thing, which was science, right up to the end of his life. And always, he had a few young colleagues whom he liked and was kind to and with whom he could work. I mean, it wasn't just me and Jean; all through his life he'd had young people that he could work with - Helen was one of them. But they did have to have certain qualities, they not only had to be fairly bright, or he... he couldn't suffer fools, but they also had to be sort of, rather aggressive people, people willing to, sort of, argue.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Birkbeck, UCH, India, Hampstead Heath, Eton College, JBS Haldane, Sheila Maynard Smith, Helen Spurway

Duration: 3 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008