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Comrade Haldane Is Too Busy to Go on Holiday

The Genius Who Spied for Stalin

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 464 pages
ISBN: 9781594039836
AVAILABLE: 4/24/2018

Comrade Haldane Is Too Busy to Go on Holiday
The Genius Who Spied for Stalin

JBS Haldane F.R.S. (1892-1964) was one of the leading scientists of the 20th Century, renowned for helping to reconcile Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection with Mendel’s discovery of genes, through statistical wizardry. He was the product of a distinguished family of scientists and public figures: his father, the noted Oxford physiologist John Scott Haldane, invented decompression techniques still used by deep sea divers today, while his uncle Lord Richard Haldane served in Lloyd George’s cabinet. ‘JBS’ also trained and influenced a swathe of students and colleagues, at Oxford, Cambridge and University College London, many of whom went on to distinction in their own right, such as the evolutionary theorist John Maynard Smith.

As a widely known left-wing ‘public intellectual,’ Haldane gained fame as a popularizer of science and commentator on public affairs, broadcasting often on the BBC and publishing extensively in newspapers and magazines, a presence aided by useful drama created by his notorious physiological self-experimentation. His collections of popular scientific essays, including the futuristic eugenic tract Daedalus (1923), which introduced the possibility of human birth by hatching (‘ectogenesis’) influenced a generation of upcoming scientists, and remain in print today. On his death in 1964 he was accorded the rare tribute of a televised self-obituary on the BBC.

Celebrated for his ability to connect seemingly disparate subjects, during the Second World War Haldane was extensively involved in scientific research to aid the British war effort. Using evidence gathered from VENONA Signals Intelligence intercepts, the MI5 files on Haldane and his associates, and the Haldane papers, this book reveals that JBS was also a Soviet spy, as a member of the ‘X Group,’ an espionage ring that was run out of the Soviet Embassy in London by the GRU—Soviet Military Intelligence. His interlocking associations with other spies, such as Ivor Montagu and the Klaus Fuchs’ associate Hans Kahle; his role as a hardline Stalinist propagandist for the Soviet Union through the onset of the Cold War; his duplicitous betrayal of his colleague and friend, the Soviet geneticist Nikolai Vavilov; his long-standing support for the charlatan Soviet ‘scientist’ Trofim D. Lysenko; and his concealed stalemate with the Communist Party of Great Britain once his ability to finesse Lysenko was extinguished, are unravelled here for the first time.

About the Author

Gavan Tredoux is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and a mathematician and statistician by training, with extensive interests in the History of Science (,

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Shortly before noon on the 26th of June 1949, Professor John Burdon Sanderson Haldane elbowed his six foot, two hundred and forty-five pound, frame into Harry Pollitt’s office. The King Street headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain was crowded. JBS had known for some time that he was in serious trouble with the party. His support for Trofim D. Lysenko—a semi-literate peasant who had shinned his way up the Soviet patronage system to become Stalin’s anointed authority on properly dialectical non-genetics—was insufficiently enthusiastic. The Party required less finessing and more commitment. It had come to this: a distinguished mathematical geneticist, physiologist and Professor of Biometry at University College London was consulting a boilermaker, Pollitt, about the correct line on the technical details of biological heredity.

MI5 were listening in as usual through the network of microphones that they had installed in the King Street building some years previously. Pollitt and the Party had been warned by the Soviets, who had long compromised MI5, that King Street was bugged. But several sweeps had failed to turn up anything. They created a ‘safe room’. MI5 bugged that too. They ripped up the floorboards, but found nothing. So they carried on anyway, as if only half-aware of the fact.

The transcript of the conversation that followed was duly filed in the dossier that MI5 had fitfully maintained on Haldane since his visit to the Soviet Union in 1928. There were some curious new developments.

Up until now, Haldane had been an exemplary communist. He had supported Lysenko from the beginning. He never had to turn down a free holiday to the Soviet Union before, or much-needed cash. It had not been necessary to offer him either, until now. Anyway, the physiology of frost resistance was not one of his research interests. There were, in the end, limits to his self-experimentation. What to do? His back hurt.


In his day Professor JBS Haldane was as well-known a scientist as one could hope to be. Magazines paid handsomely for his articles explaining science to the general public. Collected in books, these continued to sell for years. When he voiced his classically-educated opinions, the newspapers listened, and the BBC transmitted them. Reckless physiological self-experimentation, learned from his father, created useful drama. ‘Prof’ had the sort of presence as a general science popularizer and skeptic that Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould came to command half a century later. But Haldane had a far broader scientific reach, and more panache. Technically, he was a mathematical population geneticist and evolutionary theorist, one of the founders of the New Synthesis which anchored Darwin to Mendel through statistical wizardry (impressive to those in the know, but an unpromising basis for broader fame). Along the way, he also took up communism.

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