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Claude Gordon Douglas


Claude Gordon DouglasClaude Gordon Douglas(1882–1963), physiologist, was born in Leicester on 26 February 1882, the second son of Claude Douglas, honorary surgeon to Leicester Royal Infirmary, and his wife, Louisa Bolitho Peregrine, of London. Both his grandfathers were also in medical practice: James Douglas, L.R.C.S. (Edin.), was Consulting Surgeon to the Infirmary in Bradford and Thomas Peregrine, M.D. (Edin.), M.R.C.P. (London), was in practice in London.

His elder brother, J. S. C. Douglas, was professor of pathology at Sheffield University, and his cousin, J. A. Douglas, was professor of geology at Oxford. He was a scholar at Wellington College, but moved to Wyggeston grammar school, Leicester, to study science. In 1900 he went up to Oxford, where he was a demy of Magdalen College. In 1904 he obtained first-class honours in natural science (animal physiology), after which he stayed on in the physiological laboratory, working for the research degree of BSc under the supervision of J. S. Haldane. In 1905 Douglas took up a London University scholarship at Guy's Hospital and completed his medical degree of BM, BCh (Oxon.) in December 1907. Six months earlier he had been elected to a fellowship and lectureship in natural science at St John's College, Oxford, a position he held for forty-two years. He became DM in 1913.

Douglas's scientific career falls into three parts: the first, his collaborative work up to 1914 with J. S. Haldane on human breathing; the second, his work during the First World War on physiological aspects of gas warfare; and the third, back in Oxford, after Haldane's departure from the physiological laboratory, on general human metabolism, successively as university demonstrator (1927), reader (1937), and titular professor (1942), and, after he had passed the retiring age, as departmental demonstrator up to 1953.

It was Douglas's good fortune to join the physiological laboratory when work on the regulation of body oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations, and exchange of these gases through the lungs, was still developing. He quickly became the best-known and the most permanent of the younger colleagues of Haldane, whose work since the turn of the twentieth century had transformed the subject of respiration. Douglas's name appears on some ten of the most important papers over this period, which show an insight into the principles of control physiology three or four decades ahead of their time. Douglas and Haldane provided a quantitative description of the transport of carbon dioxide by the blood between cells and lungs, and the facilitatory effect on it of oxygen transport in the opposite direction. This work complemented the earlier work of Christian Bohr, K. A. Hasselbalch, and S. A. S. Krogh, of Copenhagen, who had shown the facilitatory effects of carbon dioxide on oxygen transport. Work of this kind allowed Douglas and Haldane to develop a practical and bloodless method for measuring the rate of pumping of blood by the human heart under various conditions.

Detailed and meticulous measurement allowed Douglas and J. S. Haldane (with some mathematical assistance from J. B. S. Haldane) to elucidate the equilibria between the oxygen-carrying substance haemoglobin and the concentrations of oxygen and carbon monoxide. They went on to show that certain conditions, notably residence at high altitude, altered the equilibria. Ingenious reasoning led them to conclude from this observation that oxygen could be transported against the concentration gradient across the lung capillary membranes (oxygen secretion). The question was open at the time, and the resulting controversy between them and their friends Krogh and Joseph Barcroft, of Cambridge, was one of the entertainments of early twentieth-century physiology. Subsequent developments decided the controversy against Oxford, but the basic observation remained unexplained.

During this period Douglas began to measure the rate of uptake of oxygen and of the output of carbon dioxide by collecting expired air in a large canvas gasbag. The Douglas bag became well known for its convenience for measuring energy expenditure in people in various occupations.

Douglas served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War, reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel. When gas warfare started in 1915, he was the serving officer in France with the detailed knowledge and deep understanding of respiratory physiology that allowed interpretation of the effects of the alarming new weapon. He held several appointments in the British expeditionary force related to gas warfare before being appointed physiological adviser in 1917 to the Directorate of Gas Services, where he worked with Harold Hartley. He was awarded the MC in 1916, was four times mentioned in dispatches, and was appointed CMG in 1919. He contributed extensively to the official history of the war, and Hartley felt that his chapter dealing with the development of gas warfare was by far the best summary of the use of the new weapon.

After the war Douglas returned to Oxford, where he collaborated with J. G. Priestley in setting up and running a novel and thorough practical course in human physiology. The course was taken by all Oxford medical undergraduates over a period of some thirty years.

After J. S. Haldane left the physiological laboratory, Douglas's interests moved towards the assessment of metabolic processes in humans in the light of the new insights provided by the rapid expansion of biochemistry. With a succession of research students, including F. C. Courtice, he applied the new knowledge to the interpretation of quantitative measurements. His conclusions put him in the vanguard of those who questioned the fashionable, though erroneous, view that carbohydrate was the sole source of energy for muscular contraction. Between the wars the departure of Haldane and the scanty material support received by his branch of physiology rendered difficult any achievement in his field of interest; the Oxford laboratory was more concerned with the exciting advances in neurophysiology of the school of C. S. Sherrington.

During the Second World War Douglas remained in Oxford, teaching and helping with administration in college and the laboratory. After the war and before his final retirement in 1953 he supervised the work of three more research students, including Roger Bannister.

From 1920 onwards Douglas was increasingly involved in government committee work, some of which he took over from J. S. Haldane, on such topics as chemical warfare, muscular activity in industry, health and safety in mines, conditions in hot and deep mines, research on pneumoconiosis, breathing apparatus for the National Fire Service, the Gas Research Council, heating and ventilation of buildings, and diet and energy requirements. As a chairman or member, Douglas prepared his papers meticulously, listened carefully, but spoke comparatively seldom.

Douglas was a devoted senior member of St John's College, which was his home for twenty-eight years. He was a formidable walker, and a keen and very knowledgeable gardener and photographer. He was an excellent host in college and at home. Douglas was unmarried and lived with his younger sister, Margaret Douglas, for twenty-four years.

In 1911 Douglas won the Radcliffe prize; in 1922 he was elected FRS and was on the council of the Royal Society (1928–30). He was an ad hominem professor at a time when Oxford had few such. In 1945 he was awarded the Osler memorial medal, and in 1950 he was elected to an honorary fellowship of St John's.

Douglas's early and best-known joint work in academic physiology probably stemmed in large part from Haldane's genius. However, his extraordinarily high standards of accuracy, his energy, his rare common sense and general competence must have contributed greatly to the joint achievement. His capacity as an independent scientist was obvious to his younger colleagues and to readers of his writings on chemical warfare.

Douglas died in the Radcliffe Infirmary on 23 March 1963 after a street accident in Oxford.


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