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These scientists did underwater experiments secretly on themselves making WWII D-Day a success

At this time, scientists were already aware of the dangers of 'decompression sickness.'

These scientists did underwater experiments secretly on themselves making WWII D-Day a success
Cover Image Source: British scientist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892 - 1964) eats a meal provided by the blood donation service. (Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1939, the British Navy faced the worst submarine disaster in history. It happened when the HMS Thetis submarine, the pride of the Royal Navy, was submerged for a dive test. To the crew's frantic horror, the inner hatch on a torpedo tube flung open. Excessive supply of carbon dioxide flooded into the deep-sea vessel, killing 99 people. This tragedy made the navy skeptical about their underwater operations, and they realized they needed an efficient way to absorb gas underwater for submarines to function during WWII.

Image Source: British ships return to the place where the HMS Thetis sank for a memorial, Liverpool Bay, Great Britain, 1939. (Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image Source: British ships return to the place where the HMS Thetis sank for a memorial, Liverpool Bay, Great Britain, 1939. (Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Amid this scenario, there was a maverick submarine scientist named John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, who did some underwater experiments on himself to pave the way for the D-Day victory. Haldane was a British-Indian scientist and mathematician. Unlike many WWII heroes, Haldane’s story is lesser-known, almost untold, and overlooked in war history.

Image Source: British biologist J. B. S. Haldane sits on the panel of a conference held by the Association of Scientific Workers. (Photo by Felix Man/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image Source: British biologist J. B. S. Haldane sits on the panel of a conference held by the Association of Scientific Workers. (Photo by Felix Man/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Haldane, also called “JBS,” carried out some secret underwater experiments with his team. Through these experiments, they found the perfect blend of gases to keep humans alive underwater. Their discovery was one of the major reasons that decided D-Day’s success.

Image Source: British scientist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892 - 1964) (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image Source: British scientist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892 - 1964) (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Haldane led a team of geneticists who carried out experiments in a lab at University College London. Helen Spurway, his wife, was the lab’s co-pilot. In the autumn of 1942, dressed in leather breathing apparatus, Haldane and Spurway squeezed themselves inside the hyperbaric chamber of a heavy steel tube. The narrow tube measured only 4 feet in diameter and was encased with rounded walls. The floor inside was made of wooden planks.

Image Source: John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (top left, 1892 - 1964) (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Image Source: John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (top left, 1892 - 1964) (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

At this time, scientists were already aware of the dangers of “decompression sickness,” also known as the bends. During diving, the change in pressure can cause a torrent of nitrogen bubbles to gush into the bloodstream. These snowballing bubbles can block blood flow and many times, can even lead to death. Also “nitrogen narcosis” builds up in the physiology of the diver.

Representative Image Source: Overview of the interior of the French Navy attack nuclear submarine(Photo by Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
Representative Image Source: Overview of the interior of the French Navy attack nuclear submarine(Photo by Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

So, the first goal of Haldane was to test the scale of nitrogen narcosis. In the small hyperbaric tube, they would breathe air and see if “nitrogen got them properly drunk,” as per Smithsonian Magazine. Another task on their checklist was to monitor how long they could breathe the oxygen before it began to poison them.



 

Inside the dim chamber illuminated by small portable electric lights, air zapped continuously. This air increased the pressure rating inside the chamber and soon enough, the divers began to feel the change. As pressure changed, the temperature began to rise too leading to the production of heat that was exacerbating.

Image Source: View from the interior of a NATO Submarine Rescue System (Photo by Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
Representative Image Source: View from the interior of a NATO Submarine Rescue System (Photo by Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

 

Sealed in the tube at the bottom of the sea, Haldane and Spurway began to feel claustrophobic. An operator outside the chamber clicked open a valve to halt the inward flux of gas. Eventually, the temperature inside began to drop, the timing of which was noted by Haldane.

After 33 minutes inside the chamber, Spurway removed the rubber mouthpiece from her lips and vomited. Even when she had recovered from vomiting, she experienced visual disturbances, lip twitches, and hallucinating visions of brilliant flashes of dancing purple lights she later called “dazzle.” They concluded that breathing pure oxygen could be just as poisonous. Besides, Haldane ended up getting his back injured during a seizure.

Image Source: The Scottish geneticist Professor John Haldane (1892-1964) at University College London. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Image Source: The Scottish geneticist Professor John Haldane (1892-1964) at University College London. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Haldane and his lab crew conducted over 600 experiments on themselves. Their tests yielded the result proving that “nitrogen narcosis” was real. The Royal Navy used the data from their experiments to launch its X-craft submarines and hand out custom blends of oxygen and air based on the depth of their dives.

Image Source: A convoy of merchantmen and colliers protected by warships of the Royal Navy and anti aircraft barrage balloons assemble off the North West Coast of England ready to depart. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image Source: A convoy of merchantmen and colliers protected by warships of the Royal Navy and anti-aircraft barrage balloons assemble off the North West Coast of England ready to depart. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The story of the eccentric group is published in a book entitled "Chamber Divers: The Untold Story of the D-Day Scientists Who Changed Special Operations Forever," authored by Rachel Lance, an engineer and professor of extreme physiology.



 

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