A WWI self-experimenter

Laurence Scales looks at the life of Joseph Henry Barcroft: physiologist, Quaker, and reckless self-experimenter.

  • Joseph Barcroft

    Joseph Barcroft

Irish physiologist Joseph Barcroft (1872-1947) was a highly courageous man. Although a Quaker, he was drawn into combat by the use of poison gas by the enemy, and used himself as a guinea pig in a dangerous experiment to determine the effectiveness of poison gas at the Porton Down chemical warfare laboratory, where he volunteered after it was set up in 1915. Not one to be fazed by situation, he once stood serenely sightseeing in the middle of a well-shelled crossroads in Belgium in broad daylight wearing his usual bowler hat.

His early work at Cambridge had been concerned with the absorption and transport of gases in the blood. There was a long running physiological controversy concerning the passage of oxygen into the blood from the lungs. Did it jump by simple diffusion or was it pushed by some more interesting mechanism (‘secretion’)? Barcroft was one of those who favoured the diffusion theory. His principal antagonist was John Scott Haldane. They both conducted experiments in rarefied air (on different mountain tops), both contributed their expertise to gas warfare in World War 1, and both were reckless self-experimenters.

  • Australian infantry wearing Small Box Respirators, Ypres, September 1917

    Australian infantry wearing Small Box Respirators, Ypres, September 1917

    Credit: Public domain

After the war the experiments on diffusion versus secretion continued, although by this time it looked as though secretion might only occur under extreme conditions. Gas pressures and concentrations in the lungs and in the blood were difficult to measure in a living subject but gradual experimental advances were made. Barcroft passed six days in a chamber which was slowly depleted of oxygen until he reached the equivalent of 5500m altitude. He then undertook exercise on a stationary bicycle. His blood (and his complexion) gradually turned blue.

This was a prelude to carrying out a study on inhabitants of Cerro de Pasco, a mining town on top of the Peruvian Andes. On his return he delivered an Ri Friday Evening Discourse in which he commented on the unfamiliar locale.

‘Not far removed from a very primitive civilisation… there are places to which money has scarcely penetrated, and where the exchange of commodities is still a process of barter. Such nostrums as horse-dung and well-kept human urine occupy an honourable place in the pharmacopoeia. The mine is about 250ft below the surface… The first porter whom we saw emerge was a little fellow, who said he was ten years old… He had on his back a load of ore which I estimated at 40lbs.’ (FED 09 June 1922, Physiological Effects at High Altitudes in Peru.)

It is clear from the discourse that there was a now a practical goal for his studies, not just physiological curiosity. There was the problem in his mind of enabling people to reach the summit of Everest in spite of mountain sickness. (That triumph of science was left to another physiologist in 1953).

Joseph Barcroft pursued his career largely at Cambridge but became Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution from 1924 to 1927 and received a knighthood around this time. He returned to the Ri as a member in 1933.

The diffusion versus secretion argument lingered until the late 1930s and, with the death of Haldane, rather than any further clinching experiment, it left Barcroft the winner.

Perhaps his most frightening experiment was the one he conducted in World War 1. Together with a dog he subjected himself in a gas chamber to a dose of hydrogen cyanide. After a minute the dog collapsed and he decided to leave the experimental chamber soon after. ‘As regards the results upon myself,’ he wrote, ‘the only real effect was a momentary giddiness when I turned my head quickly. This lasted about a year…’ It was clear from this that animal experiments should not be used as a guide to the effect of gases on humans, at least not without first studying differences in respiration between species. Barcroft found himself again called to Porton in World War 2, on the brink of chemical warfare again.

He collapsed and died, breathless, running to catch a bus. 

  • The summit of the rail line to Barcroft’s base at Cerro de Pasco is at 15,681 ft. An oxygen cylinder is now provided in the passenger coach for those who become unwell due to altitude sickness. (Laurence had a headache by this point and was not thinking very clearly.) 

    Credit: Laurence Scales

  • Peruvian railway connections

    Barcroft chose Peru for his experiments because, unlike in Europe, there are towns with utilities to run a laboratory at this altitude, they were (and still are) served by rail and, he pointed out, there were also two interesting types of subject to experiment on: ‘Anglo-Saxon officials and the native labourers’. 

    Credit: Laurence Scales

  • Compressed water bottle

    An empty water bottle from the Peruvian Andes, crushed by the denser atmosphere at sea level.

    Credit: Laurence Scales

Laurence Scales is a volunteer working with the Ri Heritage and Collections team. He also leads unique and eclectic London tours focused on the curious history of science, invention, medicine and intelligence.  He is a graduate in engineering and has worked in various technological industries.

Find out more on his website, and follow him on twitter: @LWalksLondon

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