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In praise of the Rubicon Foundation September 17, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Technical Diving.
Tags: , ,

After my entry into the world of technical diving, I devoured all the reading material I could get my hands on until I found the Rubicon Foundation, a huge repository of scientific literature on the subject of diving. More about it’s mission and content can be found in Wikipedia. This site has enough reading material to keep me busy for years! The site seems entirely devoted to the collection of published works on the subject of diving, primarily diving physiology, making them available for free to the public.

The foundation recently posted The Prevention of Compressed Air Illness by A.E. Boycott, G.C.C. Damant, and John Burdon Sanderson Haldane John Scott Haldane, considered to be the seminal work on decompression theory, where the concept of (tissue) compartments was first introduced. The theory presented in this work has become known as “Haldanian” theory, and is incorporated into all major decompression models in use today. Not bad for a paper published 100 years ago. I guess that Haldane got most of the credit not just because “Haldanian” sounds better than “Boycottian” and “Damantian”, but that he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and an MD, and the others weren’t.

If you’re up for a little science, it’s definitely worth checking the site out for perspectives on thermal protection, decompression, oxygen toxicity, inert gas narcosis, high pressure nervous syndrome, arterial gas embolism and so on. Their search capability isn’t all that great and some of the papers appear only as abstracts but these complaints are trivial in comparison to what the site has to offer.

Many of the documents from the Rubicon Foundation have made great additions to my diving library. Check it out! If you find you’re making good use of the site, make sure you send them a small donation.



1. Dr Aust - October 22, 2008

You actually have the wrong Haldane, Chris – there are a bunch of them, so it is easy to mix them up. The one who authored the famous decompression paper is James Scott (JS) Haldane FRS (1860-1936). JBS Haldane (as he is usually referred to) (1892-1964), who is far more famous outside science than his dad, was his son, a mathematician turned biologist turned geneticist. JBS also had a sister, the writer Naomi Mitchison, who lived to be 101 and died as recently as 1999.

In fact JBS did have something to do with the decompression work, as you can read in various places, e.g. here. The older Haldane was the most famous respiratory physiologist of his day, but he was not much of mathematician. JS had basically worked out the idea of the staged scheme for ascent from depth, but he needed someone to do the calculations properly. So his son, then 15, who was a maths whizz, did the job.

JS Haldane first got into respiratory physiology via his work on mine safety and on CO2 and CO narcosis. The usual story told about this is how he sat in a sealed chamber with various CO (carbon monoxide) levels and noted down his own symptoms as he gradually got more and more zonked. In a later famous study on respiration (published 1905) he and his co-author did measurements of their own lung CO2 levels at the bottom of a deep mine, at sea level, on top of the mountain Ben Nevis and in a pressure chamber.

The other two authors on the decompression paper are interesting too. They were the ones who did all the actual experiments (sticking goats in a pressure chamber – !), but Haldane was the theorist (as well as the most famous and senior of the three, like you said) so it was his name that got attached to the tables. In fact, Haldane was contracted to do this research by the British Admiralty (his younger brother was Secretary of War at the time, c. 1906-8 – as you can see the Haldanes were a well-connected bunch). Guybon (GCC) Damant – more on him in a minute – was a serving Royal Navy officer (and diver) involved in Navy diving research and presumably “seconded” to the team.

Arthur Boycott (1877-1938), the third guy, was one of the founders of experimental pathology in the UK. He became an FRS a few years later (1914) and ended up as the long-time Professor of Pathology at University College London. He is remembered for his work on the effects of hypoxia on red blood cell production, among other things.

For a diver like you, Guybon Chesney Castell (sic) Damant (1881-1963) is probably the most interesting of the lot. Damant was a celebrated diver of the time, becoming Navy Chief Inspector of Diving before WW1. During WW1 he led a secret navy salvage diving team. They famously salvaged a load of gold out of the wreck of the SS Laurentic, but their most important wartime job (the “U-boat flying squad”) was diving the wrecks of recently sunk German U-Boats to try and recover code-books and other secret documents (see e.g. here). This kind of stuff was instrumental in the British finally getting the better of the U-boats, since they could decode their signals. Damant was also an officer in Navy Salvage in WW2. I’m not sure what his civilian occupation was between the wars, though it was clearly diving-related. He published various scientific articles relating to diving research, marine animals, and diving equipment

Sorry to bore on, hope it might be of some interest. I’ve just been writing something about some of Boycott and Haldane’s other work on respiration for a physiology magazine, which is how I came across your post.

The physiology of diving used to be taught a lot in Physiology.B.Sc degrees a decade or two back – often bundled together with other “altered environment” stuff like altitude, extreme heat and cold, weightlessness etc.- but this is less common nowadays as there are typically fewer folk around on the faculty with the right speciality knowledge to teach it. But it has always been a very popular topic with the students, so maybe it is overdue for a revival. So maybe I ought to pop over and check out the Rubicon site you mentioned.


2. deepstopr - October 22, 2008

Thank you for the correction. Being a relatively new blogger I’m happy for any and all relevant (non-spam) commentary, especially of the interesting nature you have provided. I see you’re a Tom Lehrer fan. I remember him on TV when I was a teenager (“A flick knife can be fun, you bet! But it can’t compare to a bayonet”).
I’m pleased to make your acquaintance and hope you have a chance to check out the Rubicon site.



3. draust - October 23, 2008

Hi Chris

My parents had all the Tom Lehrer records so I grew up with them. It has been a treat to find how many clips of him performing them live there are on Youtube.

I would be pushed to pick a favourite line, but

When they see us coming the birdies all try and hide
But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide”

– is certainly up there.


4. Lovie - November 11, 2008

Thanks for writing this.


5. Changing Attitudes to Deep Air « Chronicle of an older diver - September 13, 2012

[…] came across an abstract of a paper in the Rubicon Foundation archive a couple of days ago and I thought I’d repost it here. It has the catchy […]


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