I was reading the new biography of J.B.S. Haldane by Samanth Subramanian to see if it could tell me anything important I did not know already. In brief, it did not (and I would take issue with some of the author’s interpretations of modern biological thought but that’s by the by). Feeling slightly irritated by the prose I came across a photograph on page 223 of Haldane with his first wife at a meeting of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1939. On the left is an almost complete face of a woman. She is not identified there or by the picture agency which supplied the photograph. I realised it was Margery Elwin, editor of Water Life magazine. I scanned the page to compare it with a photograph of Margery Elwin taken in 1937/38. I then asked others to judge if it was the same person; all agreed it was.
|The photograph in Subramanian's book on Haldane
|Left, Margery Elwin in 1937/38
I have written about Margery Elwin and Haldane previously here. The photograph puzzled me because although they had been in contact in 1937 and 1938 by letter, she wrote to Haldane in 1946 as if they had not met previously. She explained that she was a member of the Communist Party and an avid supporter of the Daily Worker which she need not have done had they previously met. My guess is she sat near the Haldanes in 1939 but perhaps could not get round to introducing herself to the great man.
In the 1950s both she and her husband, Louis C. Mandeville, worked for Haldane, she keeping stocks of drosophila and he newts with both working on fish. A link with Haldane was evident when she took his line in an article for amateur fishkeepers in defence of Lysenko when the latter had become utterly indefensible. Lysenko, a favourite of Stalin, destroyed the pursuit of proper genetics and caused the death of Vavilov, its leading proponent, in the USSR. The take home message is that then—and now—even the most distinguished scientists could be political activist first and scientist second. Subramanian argues, as have others, that in Haldane’s mind marxism and science were united, with the USSR as its faultless exemplar.
Subramanian S. 2020. A Dominant Character. London: Atlantic Books