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April 24, 2024 60 mins

Holly talks with previous podcast guest Dr. Rachel Lance about her new book "Chamber Divers," which details the WWII research that advanced underwater science. 

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, a production
of iHeartRadio. Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Holly
Frye and I'm Tracy V. Wilson. Back in June of
twenty twenty, doctor Rachel Lance was on the show to
talk about her book In the Waves, detailing the HL

(00:22):
Hunley disaster, and today she is back to Grace's again,
this time talking about her new book, Chamber Divers. Chamber
Divers is about World War Two and the team of
British geneticists that was tasked with solving the problem of
how to get military personnel to survive underwater. It is
a roller coaster of a story that was classified for

(00:44):
a very long time, so it was an absolute delight
for me to pepper her with questions about this team
of very unique and daring scientists and how their work
has informed entire fields of science. So here is that conversation,
all right. Today, I am lucky enough to be joined
by doctor Rachel Lance, who has been on the show before.

(01:07):
But last time Tracy got to poured you all to herself,
and now I get my chance.

Speaker 2 (01:13):
We've made our purple hair connection.

Speaker 1 (01:15):
We have so welcome.

Speaker 2 (01:16):
Thank you for having me back.

Speaker 1 (01:17):
Oh, I'm so.

Speaker 2 (01:18):
Glad because you have a new and.

Speaker 1 (01:24):
Quite impressive book out, Chamber Divers, which is we'll get
into it, but some of this is a very harrowing
read in the best way. But the first thing I
want to talk to you about is that, even more
than your first book, which was In the Waves, this
book seems to me knowing you a bit, to be

(01:46):
so deeply in your wheelhouse and sort of where you
might have been headed before you started researching the sinking
of the Hunley in the Civil War and what informed
that first book. Does this feel like the inevitable book
that you were going to eventually write.

Speaker 2 (02:03):
It feels like another story that was weirdly just waiting
for me. That was how I felt with the Hunley.
I was like, who who arranged this? This feels like
a conspiracy? And I feel like this one was true too.
And what I decided is that that's what I think
makes engaging books is when people write what they know,
and they write the stories that they're the best person

(02:24):
to tell. And so this book came out of a
paper that I read during the course of my Honley research,
and it was this group of researchers who were doing
some stuff with carbon dioxide, And the date bothered me.
It was nineteen forty one. That it was published in
nineteen forty one, and they were in England. So in research,

(02:47):
papers take a long time to come out, so it
usually means that you've done the work the year before,
and that means that they were doing research on carbon
dioxide during the Blitz in nineteen forty And I could
not figure out white people who were literally being bonded
in their homes would care about carbon dioxide. It just
it seemed really irrelevant at that time period. So I

(03:10):
just couldn't stop thinking about it, and I kept digging
and digging, and so this was the story that I
eventually uncovered, and it was too good not to write.
It was too good.

Speaker 1 (03:20):
The other thing that I want to talk to you
about a little bit is your research and writing process,
but specifically because this book, your work on it straddled
the pandemic. Some of it happened before we knew that
the world was going to fall apart for a little while,
and some of it happened after. And there are some
pretty interesting moments in the text where you include comparisons

(03:43):
of things like medical issues and people's behavior during World
War Two to what we have just experienced with COVID. Right,
So aside from the obvious impediments to research that came
up while we all had to sit in our homes,
how much did the Code nineteen pandemic informed the way
that you processed the information that you were researching as

(04:06):
you were prepping and writing Chamber divers.

Speaker 2 (04:09):
It was really important to me personally because I was
a high risk person. I'm a high risk medical person,
and I had made the decision to have a really
critical knee surgery in January twenty twenty. My logic was, Okay,
I've got a head to London. I've got to do
all this research, but London is a walking city. I'll
get this knee surgery done first and then I'll be

(04:31):
more comfortable walking. Because that didn't work out great for me,
so I was trying to write whatever other bits and
pieces I could do. It meant that I had to
reconfigure the organization in timeline of how I wrote the
whole book, and it also meant that since someone who
is not only high risk but works at a hospital

(04:53):
in restratory physiology research, I was going through my personal
experiences as well. So I'm a PhD. I don't treat
medical patients. All of research was shut down, but this
is still my crew at work, right, Like, these are
still my people there, and this is a respiratory disease

(05:13):
and so that and at the time, I was married
to a firefighter who was doing a lot of CPR
on people with respiratory failure and coming home at the
end of that, and so that was a really big
part of my life for at least the first full year,
for sure longer than that reality. And one of the
chapters that I wrote during this because I could do
a lot of the research using digitized sources, was the

(05:35):
BLOODZ chapter. That chapter, which I believe is chapter five.
It might have gotten renumbered, but it kind of became
a form of therapy for me as I was writing it.
There was a lot that got caught out of there
because I would read all these diaries where people were
acting exactly like they were in the pandemic, and I
was just sitting there like, oh my god, there's nothing

(05:58):
we could do. There's nothing we could do to inform
people and like educate them properly in a way that
everyone is feeling comfortable with the actions we need to
take together, and it really hammered home for me in
kind of a depressing way how much we're restricted by
our nature and the weans where our brains process information.

Speaker 1 (06:19):
Yeah.

Speaker 2 (06:20):
So, like I said, a lot of that ended up
getting cut out, but writing it and at least putting
it down was a big way that I was processing
what was happening in our world at the time.

Speaker 1 (06:30):
Yeah. I was so struck by the segments in that
chapter where you're talking about how people living outside of
London are sort of like la la la la la.
It feels very distant to them, right that their countrymen
are literally living through hell and the people leaving London
for respite are like almost in a different flavor of

(06:51):
like cultural shell shock because no one understands where they're
at mentally. That to me was super fascinating.

Speaker 2 (06:57):
That I absolutely that's exactly why I put that in there.
I'm glad you picked up on that, because that was
the experience that I was having, even with some family members,
where they were living a life that felt completely disconnected
from what was happening, and that made it easier for
them to fail to process the severity of what the

(07:20):
rest of us were going through so wild. Yeah, it's
really interesting how many parallels there were. I went through
a lot of diaries for that chapter, a lot of
Blitz diaries.

Speaker 1 (07:31):
Yeah. So this is also an interesting tale because it
involves a lot of information that was classified for a
very long time. Yes, so you mentioned that it came
to your attention because you read a paper, But how
did you actually get to the point where you were
getting the real information you needed to put this story together? Like,

(07:51):
at what point were you like, is this hidden information?
Can I have this?

Speaker 2 (07:59):
That's you kind of just have to play stupid with
the government. That's the best way you kinda have to No,
it's exactly like you said, you kinda just have to
be like can I have it? If they'll give it
to you, they'll give it to you. So classified documents,
you're either going to get everything you want with no fight,

(08:19):
or there is no negotiation and you will never see it.
Those are the two extremes. So with these sense that
relates to World War Two, what these researchers were working
on ultimately ended up being the landings at D Day.
The landings at D Day were highly classified for a
really long time, even after they were successful, because the
techniques that were developed were so new. So what had

(08:42):
to happen in order for these documents to be declassified
is the governments involved. The governments of all the Allied
countries had to go through and be like, yes, we
the public knowledge. This is public knowledge. It's public knowledge
that we do this. So it not only had to
be no longer relevant to the landings themselves, but it
had to be that the techniques that had been created

(09:05):
specifically for D Day were now considered public information. Gotcha,
a lot of those had not been declassified by the
British until the late nineteen seventies. In America, some women
were classified until the early two thousands, and then there
were others still that I had to request the release for,

(09:28):
and I had to when I requested them, I sort
of made the argument of like, everyone knows you're doing
this anyway, But also there's a guessing game involved as
well because it's classified, so you can't justify why you
need the thing because you can't read the thing in
order to know that it says what you needed to say,
so you kind of you kind of have to play

(09:51):
this game where you're like, this is just titled report
nineteen forty three. Might it contain the solution to all
of my problems? I don't know what I'm going to
try and rate it, and so a lot of this
is a brute force method. There's very much this brute
force methodology of setting aside hours, days, preferably a couple

(10:13):
of weeks for each archive, and then just committing yourself
to the fact that you live there for a little
while and may not may not. Yeah, Like, I get
so invested in these documents when I'm finally able to
access them because they're all physical, they're not these are
not digitized, that I'm like actively annoyed by my need

(10:35):
to use the restrooms, just like damn it, lad or
not again. So yeah, and then you got to just
power through. That's what that process looks like.

Speaker 1 (10:44):
So what is the hit rate? Like how what percentage
of stuff are you? Like this actually is not relevant
to my deal at all, versus the amount where you're like, Eureka,
I've got something really cool.

Speaker 2 (10:56):
I do have an archives dance. It's very quiet, and
so I don't get kicked out that I do it.
The hit rate is pretty low. But what's interesting is
that the best jewels are the ones you don't expect
to find. The best jewels are the ones where you
go in and you're saying, Okay, I don't know exactly

(11:17):
what this story is. And that's very much how Chamber
Divers came together. It started with that on paper, and
I was like, I don't know what this story is,
but something was going on, and so I created. What
I do is I create a master timeline document. So
by the end of writing this book, my master timeline
document was over eighty pages long. And as I'm doing that,

(11:38):
I kind of just fill in the key events as
I'm finding them. Because when you're reading these papers, you're
also not necessarily getting them in chronological order, right. You
don't know what you're going to find when you ask
for it. So I create this document and I keep
citations to where I found each fact and what data
occurred on and by the end, I've got the story.
And so the hit rate seems like it's really low,

(12:02):
but there's a high rate of finding things that are
really cool that you don't expect, like the admission that
the divers used to just pee in their suits because
they found them annoying to take off. I was like yeah.
I was like, yeah, this is a book, so.

Speaker 1 (12:27):
This is so fascinating to me. But I want to
get to the actual meat of the book and what
it contains. Because you open with a very detailed description
of what we now know today as Operation Jubilee, which
is the landing at Diepp that took place in nineteen
forty two. Will you talk a little bit about why
that event is so important to setting up the story

(12:49):
of the Chamber Divers.

Speaker 2 (12:52):
I wanted to start with that event because I think
we tend to focus on D Day without necessarily looking
at the planning that went into it. We talk a
lot about Omaha Beach, what went wrong on Omaha Beach,
and we do a good job as a society of
honoring those who gave up their lives. What I really

(13:12):
wanted to do with this book was tell the story
of what went right and how lives were saved, and
so the information to do that requires first setting up
what happens if there isn't planning, What happens if there
isn't beach scouting, What happens if we don't know how
to send divers, which is what the Chamber Divers were

(13:32):
eventually working on. So I wanted to start with DP
in nineteen forty two because that was an example of
a kind of comparable beach landing to Normandy, and it
was one where they didn't have these scouting methods in advance.
They didn't have these tools like the mini subs and
the rebreathers that these experimentalists were working on, and it

(13:53):
was an absolute bloodbath. On Blue Beach alone, which is
one of the beaches. The casualty rates were at ninety
seven percent, so basically no one made it off that beach,
and that was a direct result of the lack of
advanced information. So I wanted to use that. The book

(14:14):
starts with DAP and it ends with dday, and the
goal there was to kind of bracket this lack of
planning and lack of detailed scouting information versus what can
happen when you have that, when you've done your scientific
background research.

Speaker 1 (14:29):
Then the book jumps back in time a little bit
because you start to introduce your cast of characters that
emerged throughout the early chapters, which is like, I really
want this to be made into a movie just so
that I can see the Ocean's eleven style accumulation of
brains and really eccentric characters, et cetera. And I know

(14:51):
that you have also said in interviews and even on
our show when we had you on before that when
people talk about any kind of scientific or research work,
there is always a team, and this team was really extraordinary.
Will you talk a little bit about some of the
members of this incredible pros and cons great team of people.

Speaker 2 (15:13):
Yes, pros and cons. That's a good way to put it.
I think the way you're referring to is the fact
that I just tried to be really honest about everyone.
We're entering a new age of history where we're no
longer just looking at people as like bronze figures up
on weird horse statues. We're trying to like talk about
people as more complete human beings. And none of us
are perfect, ourselves ourselves included, but like so I wanted

(15:38):
to present these characters as like complete and well rounded,
including their flaws.

Speaker 1 (15:44):
People.

Speaker 2 (15:45):
So, one of my favorite people in the book is
this woman, doctor Helen Spurway, and she was this known
for being socially awkward PhD geneticist who really loved nuts
and salamanders, and so she she shows up to class
on the first day at University College London, and she
just like casually announces to everyone that she's going to

(16:06):
marry the professor, who, by the way, is already married.
So this is a daring. This is not the way
to make friends. But the room read the room palette exactly.
She turns out to be like a really good scientist.
This woman can do anything with statistics and math. And
she's also like so invested in using statistics and math

(16:29):
attracting genetics that she'll just like go up to random
people's houses if they have a pawn in their backyard
and knock on their door and be like, Hi, my
names Helen. Can I look in your pond for salamanders?
And like this is how she got her data. She
was she was tracking the characteristics of salamander's and newts
across her area of England. And this is her academic

(16:52):
papers because that is actually how genetics was studied at
the time. So this is a group of people who,
because of their field, are inherently used to bucking a
little bit of authority. They're used to being considered a
little bit odd. And I use that word lovingly because
I myself as a minorly odd scientist. So and then

(17:16):
you also have a lot of them who came over
from Germany. Ye the lad leader JBS how Dane. He
is an ancestrally wealthy, privileged white man, but because he
went through a lot of extreme bullying when he was younger,
he always considers himself kind of an underdog, and he
always fights for other underdogs, and he he has this

(17:40):
incredible temper that he becomes infamous for. But he's also
just sitting there like, why is racism a thing? This
doesn't make any sense. It's just genetic variation and skin pigment.
So like, he's got this mixture of being incredibly egalitarian
that I think is to his credit. And so when
refugee start coming out of Germany, he starts saying like,

(18:03):
oh my gosh, I'm gonna fund as many as possible.
This is dumb Judaism is not a genetic flaw. This
doesn't make scientific sense. So he starts trying to fund them,
and that becomes a huge component of his lab. One
of the other people that I really loved was Ursula Philip.
I related to her because one of the first things
that her daughter told me when I interviewed her, is

(18:23):
that she STI always spilled food on herself and I
was like, me too.

Speaker 1 (18:28):
Yeah, me too, I see you girl.

Speaker 2 (18:32):
So yeah, she was also spectacular geneticist, ends up being
a key part of this research, puts herself in these experiments,
puts herself at incredible risk for this country where she's
a refugee.

Speaker 1 (18:47):
I love it. Listen later on maybe offline, we can
talk about how Martin Case is my new history crush.
But that's a different matter.

Speaker 2 (18:55):
Ah, you'll have to fight me for him.

Speaker 1 (18:57):
I mean, he's so my flavor. He's a little bit wacky,
devil may care, cute as pie, super smart, come on
the dream.

Speaker 2 (19:06):
Oh my gosh. I interviewed his niece, and the first
time I interviewed his niece on the zoom because England
is six hours ahead. She just like chimes in and
then raises up her cocktail. I was like, oh.

Speaker 1 (19:18):
God, it's.

Speaker 2 (19:22):
Yeah, oh yeah.

Speaker 1 (19:24):
Because there's a lot of drinking in this book as well.
But I'm glad that you mentioned the sort of egalitarian
approach to bringing on team members, particularly people that had fled,
because you mentioned in the book that several of these
scientists were people that were eventually going to be targeted
if they weren't already when they left, you know. And
this is of course when the eugenics movement has its

(19:47):
own balloon of support.

Speaker 2 (19:51):
Dark festivities.

Speaker 1 (19:52):
Right. There's also a great moment where you're talking about
Ursula and sort of the legend of her fleeing Germany
versus the reality not really quite so dramatic. So one,
I would love for you to talk about that correction
in particular because it's so charming to me. And two,
I also like would love to hear more about kind

(20:13):
of the outsider's status, even in Britain where that's theoretically
not playing out, but it is impacting how they're accepted
and how they're perceived.

Speaker 2 (20:24):
Oh gosh, yeah again, Ursula, I just want to be
her friend. There's very there. Before this book, there is
very little note about her. She wasn't given credit for
a lot of her achievements. A lot of what she
had achieved in Germany before she fled was then destroyed
and tried to cover by the Nazis because they didn't
like that a woman did it. Not great inequality those Nazis,

(20:46):
And so one of the stories about her that has
been repeated in secondary tertiary sources, is that she graduated
and defended her PhD and then had to flee like imediately,
as in, she basically defended her PhD on the run
and then had to flee, and she didn't get a
chance to get her physical doctorate paper, which, of course

(21:09):
in the nineteen thirties is a lot more important because
there's no digital verification of degrees.

Speaker 1 (21:14):
Right.

Speaker 2 (21:15):
So I tried to track this. I tried to track
this back to its original source, and I couldn't find it.
So when I was talking to her daughter, I kind
of bring this out and her daughter just starts laughing.
She goes, that wasn't true. I was like, what really happened?
She goes, she forgot it again, girl, I see you.
This is what I relate to you so hard.

Speaker 1 (21:38):
It's super important.

Speaker 2 (21:40):
Happened spectacular in science, not amazing at life logistics, and
this is me. This is so I really wanted to
include that as another example, right, Like we don't have
to talk about people as if they're perfect, shiny emblems.
We can talk about people as if they're realistic, and
that also makes science more accessible in my opinion. If

(22:03):
you're someone who Yeah, in your regular life, you occasionally
leave your doctorate behind because you've forgotten it, like you
could still be amazing at science. So when Ursula Philip
and the other Jewish refugee scientists came over, the two
of whom who are in the book are Hans Kamus
and Hans Gruneberg, they came over to this UCL lab.

(22:26):
They were given refuge there, and they were given a salary,
and their families were brought over. So all of them
were saved, and most of their relatives ended up being
murdered in the Holocaust. So they were very clearly saved
by this, and they were experiencing this in a lab
where within the internal lab walls they seem to have

(22:46):
been treated as equals, at least as far as I
can tell, and their communications from the time period are
very honest, so they seem to have been treated as equals.
But outside the rest of the world was still kind
of brewing with anti Semitism. One of the things I
really tried to do when I wrote this book was
to give every action a context, because I think that's

(23:09):
the true story of science. It's why did people work
on this?

Speaker 1 (23:11):
Now?

Speaker 2 (23:12):
Why did people care about this? Now what was it
like for the individuals doing it, And so I dedicated
some time in one of the earlier chapters to after
they come through and they're in London, there are riots
in this street. There were literal physical riots in the
streets of London outside the campus walls over judaism, communism, fascism,

(23:33):
kind of all of these ideas that we know in
a couple of years will turn into literal war. During
World War two, and so they were kind of in
this little bubble where they'd been getting an opportunity to
get out of the most extreme anti semitism, but we're
still in a context where they were fighting for a
country where there were layers of discrimination.

Speaker 1 (23:55):
This makes it so fascinating because they go through so
much in the service of creating this really doing all
this research on this project and creating solutions to problems
that help everyone, even though everyone has not been cool
to them. One of the sort of two of the
things that you mentioned early on as the top of
those lists of problems that this assembled team worked on

(24:19):
were carbon dioxide and decompression sickness. And one of the
things that I really enjoy about your writing is that
you and I've told you this before, and I think
it embarrassed you. Is that you parse science in a
way that normies like myself who love science but sometimes
grapple with understanding it, will get it and it opens
these doors. So I would love for you to explain

(24:39):
in layman's terms why it is so critical to understand
these things in a wartime situation or any underwater situation
and other situations, so that it makes a little a
little easier sense. And some of it, I think is
stuff that doesn't make it to layman because frankly, the

(25:01):
times it has gone wrong have been horrific and nobody
wants to really get into it.

Speaker 2 (25:06):
Right. Okay, so you didn't embarrass me. I appreciated the comment,
but I think what I took opposition to is the
word normis, because.

Speaker 1 (25:16):
I mean, yeah, no, but in.

Speaker 2 (25:21):
My opinion, science is for everyone, and if you are
not a professional scientist, the the only thing that's usually
missing is the daily vocabulary. Every profession has their daily
vocabulary of terms, and just because you don't know all
of those doesn't mean you're stupid like it's or it
doesn't mean you're less intelligent or whatever. So yeah, that's

(25:43):
I try to. One of my major goals is to
just be like, listen, you just you don't know the word,
and that's that's fine. This isn't your daily job. I
don't know the daily words and terminology of your job
either either. That's a separate versation, right. So one of
the things that I really try to do is emphasize

(26:05):
not only what these people were doing, who they are,
but also why this problem is important and why it's
so challenging. This is something that I began to appreciate
as a scientist myself, because I get a lot of
questions about, well, why can't they do this, why can't
they do that, or why can't they just make a thing? Now,
first of all, who is they?

Speaker 1 (26:26):
So be more specific the grand poop of science?

Speaker 2 (26:31):
Yeah, because we can. The question is how much money
are you willing to contribute to our salaries? Unfortunately, at
this point in my life, no one has yet given
me the vast sums of money it would require for
me to do science for free. So because I do
have a mortgage, I do have to buy food, and
that's just yeah, it's one of the sad limitations of

(26:54):
my life situation.

Speaker 1 (26:56):
Right.

Speaker 2 (26:56):
So, like most other scientists. We have to have funding
just because as much as we love this stuff, like,
we still have to survive, and so we have to
have funding to pay salaries, buy equipment, and buy lab
space and things like that. So if someone is not
willing to invest in a thing, then we really have
a hard time achieving it for those practical life limitations. Yeah,

(27:19):
so I wanted to emphasize not only what the people
were doing, but how complex some of these problems are.

Speaker 1 (27:38):
So will you explain, though, why carbon dioxide and decompression
sickness are such huge issues and why at this point
in time people were like, I don't know what's going on.
These guys did not make it. We're trying to figure
it out.

Speaker 2 (27:49):
Okay, So the big question is the ending of what
you just said, Why people are like, I don't know.
We all experience this. This ties back in the pandemic.
Everyone experience this in the non scientific world real time
during the pandemic. In science, if you're talking about sickness,
you're talking about death, you're talking about injury, anything that

(28:10):
happens to human beings, we don't know anything until it
starts happening to someone. We can do tests for years
in petrie dishes or whatever, and it's still not going
to be the same as putting a person through it.
I can put a Patriot dish in a car seat
all you want, but it's not going to tell me

(28:31):
when someone's going to die in a car crash. So unfortunately,
a lot of the data that we get in all
these scenarios comes because someone got hurt, or someone got sick,
or someone died, and we're not going to do that
on purpose. I'm never going to blow some up on purpose.
So my data from BLAS, for example, comes from when
people have gotten blown up by accident. So what we

(28:54):
saw in the pandemic was that being worked out real
time with in illness, where we're like, we don't know yet,
we're waiting for this to spread. We have to see
how this happens naturally because we can't ethically do this
on purpose. And that was the same thing that was
happening with diving in DCS. So with diving in decompression
sickness DCS, otherwise known as the bends, this just started happening.

(29:15):
It was a thing happening to bridge construction workers and
people were like, we don't know, we're going to try
a couple things. Most of those things are not going
to work. Eventually one will and eventually the one that
really did work was invented or thought up by JBS
Haldane's father, John Scott Haldane, which is how JBS kind

(29:39):
of got into diving. So he looked at the idea
of decompression. So he looked at the idea of how
to plan your decompression so that you can avoid the
disease in the first place. And he kind of was
one of the first pioneers of the field to understand
that the human body needs time to process that's happening
to it underwater.

Speaker 1 (29:57):
I'm going to come back to science in a little bit,
but first I I kind of want to talk about
Haldane because he's a doozy of a character. One of
the issues that comes up in the book is communism
because he was very bought into that movement for a
long time.

Speaker 2 (30:12):
He was bought into everything whatever he liked. He was
like hunter present this, yes, you know, no happening.

Speaker 1 (30:20):
Yeah, Like the propaganda that was coming out of Communist
Russia convinced him. Will you talk a little bit about
the part that affiliation with communism plays in his life story.

Speaker 2 (30:31):
Yes, so he bought into communism, and this was really
common in the nineteen thirties, So I tried to be
clear about that in the book, like now it's considered
a bit of a fringe and extremist belief. That's because
now we have the example of what really happened in communism.
They did not have that yet. It was still pretty theoretical,
and the Russians, this early Soviet experiment, was essentially lying

(30:55):
to the rest of the world, and they were lying well,
they convinced a lot of people. So for Jamie as
Hell Dane, he looked at communism as a way to
fight fascism. You have this fascist idea that one person
should really be in charge, and then you have this
communist idea that the people should be in charge. And

(31:17):
because he really opposed fascism, he had been in World
War One, he'd been in the trenches in World War One,
and he had seen what happens when essentially monarchs are
able to pit their people against each other at will.
He became very anti individualistic government control. And then he

(31:38):
ends up going to the Spanish Civil War voluntarily, and
that's where I think he really got radicalized because he
was fighting with the communists against the fascist regimes. So
when World War two starts to break out and everything
starts to wremble, this is all coming in the context
of right after the Great Depression. So you have this
guy who's not only been in these wars led by

(32:01):
these monarchical and fascist dictators, you have this world that's
going through this massive depression where there are food riots
and starvation and lots of problems that people are saying, oh, well,
theoretically this could be fixed by communism, which we now
know it doesn't, but at that time very appealing. So

(32:21):
he kind of becomes a big part of this and
that really starts to inform his perspective in terms of science.
There's a lot of evidence that he did this in
part because the communists were saying, oh, well, this is
the application of science to help people, and that was
a thing he really cared about. Like he really cared

(32:42):
about using science to help people. That was one of
his major goals. And so that's how communism and science
really tied together for him. And that's a big part
of I think what motivated the Lab to do this stuff.
He knew what war was like, and he wanted to
help end it.

Speaker 1 (32:58):
So I'm still gonna want to talk about Haldane because
he was I don't know if rebellious is the right
word or just he saw his path and he knew
what he believed was right and what wasn't and a
lot of that led to things like clashes with his
bosses and the leadership at University College London. Well you
talk a little bit, because there are some very funny

(33:20):
stories about like the ways he got around wartime regulations
and how he would have visitors get onto campus and
into the lab like that cracked me up.

Speaker 2 (33:30):
Yeah, oh my gosh, I love those stories too. Right,
so when the war starts really brewing, the leadership of
University College London U Seel starts to say, okay, we
gotta shut this down, we gotta get people out. We're downtown.
They do turn out to be right, they're a little
bit early. But how Dane is like, nah, no thanks,
I've been bombed several times before. I want to keep researching.

(33:53):
So that's how much this guy cares about genetics. He's like, no,
bombs are cool, I'm gonna keep We're gonna and he
essentially whenever he has visitors, he tells them to lie
and pretend they're from the government to how to get
around the guards at the gates. And he's like developed
secret passageways in things like this. So this is what

(34:14):
he's doing along with his fellow rebellious lab mates, in
order to keep the research going. Part of the reason
I wanted to include that was because that actually doesn't
seem that unusual to me. You you would be surprised
how many scientists I've seen with similar behaviors, where they

(34:38):
they really care about their research to the point where
they're like, no, I'll evacuate when the fire gets to me,
right right. So I thought that that was maybe unusual
for most people, but very classic scientists.

Speaker 1 (34:55):
I sort of love it. I think one of them
was that he told friends to say they were from
the Ministry of Food, which Judy is just the nuttiest
and best. That's a great restaurant name. If anybody wants
to take it.

Speaker 2 (35:08):
I will go, I will go to that.

Speaker 1 (35:10):
This is interesting, right because he's doing he's running this lab.
There's a lot of genetics research going on, but then
they are also being tasked by the government to figure
out these issues that are going on with military operations,
and then the blitz is happening in London where all
of this research is underway. So will you talk about

(35:33):
sort of the immediacy of the military research at that
point and how they stayed focused on things as bombings
are literally happening in the city, and then of course
they eventually had to move and thank goodness they did.

Speaker 2 (35:48):
Oh finally, Oh my gosh, So okay, this was so crazy.
I can't even imagine what this would have been like.
The know that war is coming, and the Allied military
have this collective gut clenching moment in the summer of
nineteen thirty nine where they know that Hitler is bad

(36:10):
and they're like, we're gonna start preparing for that. We
think this is gonna get worse, and they start building
more submarines. What starts happening is they have three sinkings
in a row within three weeks of each other. US
the Squaliss goes down during a training accident, HMS Thetis
goes down during a training accident, and the French Fany,

(36:33):
which actually still has lost off the Coasta Vietnam that's
a whole side story, goes down during a training accident,
but collectively these countries must have been panicking and they
kept it out of the news. So this context has
been left out of a lot of World War two histories.
But I can only imagine the panic when they realize
that they don't actually know what they're doing underwater. They

(36:56):
have no idea how to actually keep people alive in submarines,
much less get them out. How Dane and the UCL
group are geneticis by training, and they start working on
this problem immediately, and they start doing it on themselves.
Of course, because they're there. They're human beings, they're handy.
This makes sense to a scientist. So as soon as

(37:17):
how Dane testifies in the hearing about what happened with
the HMS Thetis he shows up there. He's literally there
the day after he's done this trial on himself, so
he's still got a migraine from all the co two.
He's just spent the previous night projectile vomiting through the evening.
And he gets up there and they ask him to
do math, and he does math in front of everyone

(37:37):
on the stand to tell him how much carbon dioxide
absorb it They would have needed to save their separators
at that point the admiral t goes and you can
feel it in the documents. They don't say it this way,
but this is how I mentioned it. They're like, this
is the guy. They basically just start piling it on him.

(38:00):
So like, here's our list of questions. I've read these
list of questions. Some of them were still working on
a scientist, So eighty years later, we're still working on these.
What the UCL lab does is basically find this lab
with chambers. They go to the hyperbaric chambers, which are
large metal tubes that can hold in pressure so they

(38:21):
can simulate diving. And they say, okay, this is an emergency.
We're being told to evacuate. People are leaving the city,
We're expecting bombings any day. This is part of the
war we are about to be in. And so they
start putting their own bodies in the tubes to test
this admiralties list of questions. Now, of course we already
talked about up nineteen forty two, dup happens that list

(38:42):
of questions kind of morphs a little bit. Before it
had been focused a lot on submarines and maybe making
many submarines, and how Dane himself had been pushing this
idea of free swimming divers, but he didn't really get
the admiralties full attention until dup in nineteen forty two
when they were like, oh man, we need we need

(39:04):
people underwater. At the time, HEREOD diving really meant surface
applied diving. So I think Cuba getting Junior Men of Honor.
That's what it looked like. Giant ship over you people
who would be shooting at that. So if you tried
scout a peach with it, it's pretty obvious. So what
they were doing was really working on the first scouting divers,

(39:27):
and they were just in a frenzy for the next
several years trying to come up with the safety limits
for how people could do this without dying.

Speaker 1 (39:36):
Astonishing, it just kept getting piled on. You mentioned that
they were themselves test subjects. These are to me some
of the most terrifying passages of the book, because I'm
a wuss and I don't enjoy discomfort of any flavor.
But it's one of those things where I'm like, I
understand that this approach led to a much deeper understanding

(39:57):
of all of this science and asphyxiation, and specifically what
could happen in summaris is this really a good way
to do experiments?

Speaker 2 (40:06):
What's the alternative?

Speaker 1 (40:08):
Right now?

Speaker 2 (40:09):
Seriously, what's the alternative?

Speaker 1 (40:10):
I mean, that's the thing. It's like you can't ask
a mouse how it felt.

Speaker 2 (40:13):
Right, exactly exactly.

Speaker 1 (40:16):
But I do wonder because I know you do lots
of testing, and it's very careful and regulated and obviously
like there's no way, as you said, to do the
things they were doing without putting themselves through it. But
were there any instances of this approach where you were like,
they have gone too far? This was Nope, nope, nope,
you should not have done that, sir. I mean, we'll

(40:36):
talk more about all of the injuries.

Speaker 2 (40:37):
But knowing what I know now, it's impossible for me
to evaluate their experiences because my knowledge is based on
what they did. Our entire field, my entire professional field,
is based on what this group did during World War Two,
but it was so classified. My entire professional field is

(40:58):
going to be finding out this story from this book too.
None of us knew. I had to dig it out
so I can look back now and say, yes, if
someone today did that, I would punch them in the face,
because that's insane. But I know that because this group
did it. When I was writing it, I'm I'm very

(41:19):
flattered you found it terrifying because what I'm glad I
could chill you to your core, because what I wanted
to do was convey what they would have experienced. They
were getting in this too. It was tiny, it was
thick metal. They had no real way of communicating with
the outside except for scribbling notes and holding them up
to the very small window. There was no lighting inside.

(41:40):
It would have been dark, it would have been loud,
and they had no way to get out in case
of an emergency. Because you're under pressure. You can't just
come back up. You're gonna I'll get DCS. So I
really wanted to convey how terrifying that would have been
as an exploration. Now, when we do it, we have
prescribed guidelines. I can do things safely because of this group.

(42:05):
When they were doing that, every single time they closed
out chamber door, they had no idea what was about
to happen to their bodies. And I really tried to
convey that through putting in a sampling of the experiments. So, yeah,
there are some experiments in there where everything is fine.
Everyone comes out and they have a nice afternoon and
then they eat sandwiches. And there are other experiments in
there where like it's really bad, people could have died,

(42:29):
so they had no idea going in.

Speaker 1 (42:41):
There are very real negative repercussions to their work. Will
you talk about some of the physical damage that some
of these researchers ended up with. I was so squinked
out by the lit cigarette test that was done. I
don't even know how to discribe the contortions my body

(43:01):
went through, which was Jim Rendall, right.

Speaker 2 (43:04):
Yes, would you like me to talk about that one?

Speaker 1 (43:07):
Sure? Okay, you could use a couple if you have
two that are you know, too horrifyingly graphic.

Speaker 2 (43:17):
Yesterday I spent a lengthy amount of time explaining the
concept of lung butter to someone.

Speaker 1 (43:21):
So I have a problem.

Speaker 2 (43:23):
Yeah, you have to. You'll have to tell me what
your limit is. Jim Roundell full name James, but went
by Jim. He was a PhD geneticist. And I love
this guy because he's a tall person like me, And
so he curls up in the chamber one day and
he's going down there and everything seems fine. So he
has a successful test he's a little bit of trouble

(43:44):
clearing his ears, meaning equalizing with the pressure changes, just
like on an airplane. That everything seems okay. So he
comes up and he just has this weird chest paint,
like it's really small. It's just bothering him. He assumes
that someone gave him a problematic meat pie, which just
laughed that he blamed the meat pie is like, no,

(44:05):
I just ate a weird thing. It keeps getting worse,
So eventually he goes to the doctor. The doctor just
slices him open between his ribs and he notices that
Jim Rendell's entire lung has collapsed. So what's occurred is
there was some pocket of gas in his lung and
as they were coming up from depth, the gas was

(44:26):
trapped and it couldn't fully expand. Now this doesn't usually happen.
This is not a normal thing, but some people have
flukes of physiology. If he maybe had tuberculosis or another
major respiratory disease where there was scarring in his lung,
that could happen. It's not extremely common, but it is
a thing that exists. And so as he was going

(44:47):
up that gas couldn't expand. He couldn't exhale it, and
it ruptured into his chest instead, It'll go somewhere. The
laws of physics always win, and so every time he
breathed in a little bit of his breath would go
out through that same rupture and go more into his
chest cavity. Eventually, the bubble in his chest cavity grew

(45:10):
bigger than his lungs. It collapsed his lungs, and it
started shoving his heart to the side. So if he'd
kept breathing that way, his heart would have pushed been
pushed so far to the side that it could have
ruptured one of the major blood vessels and he would
have bled to death internally. Thankfully, he went to the
doctor before he reached that part. They made a small
incision in his back, looked around, said hey, this is

(45:33):
a problem, but to test it and make sure that
the lung was closed before they sewed him back up.
The doctor hands him a lit cigarette and says, hey, kids, smoke.
This not the actual dialogue, but definitely how I meatione it.

Speaker 3 (45:47):
So this is this is a leak test, right, you
can see smoke. So if he a haales on this
cigarette and smoke comes into this hole in his chest wall.
Now we know that the how lung isn't sealed. Thankfully
for Jim Rendell, no smoke entered his chast cavity.

Speaker 2 (46:06):
It turned out the lung was fully sealed, and they
could just kind of purge that gas that was in there,
let the lung reinflate, and then sew im back up.
But this would keep being a problem for him for
the rest of his life. Now, this is a fixable problem.
There are aboutter ways to attach the lung to the chesswall,
but those are more modern inventions than his time period.
So this is a thing he struggled with for the

(46:27):
rest of his life. He was permanently disabled by this injury.

Speaker 1 (46:30):
Yeah, and that's one of the more minor injuries that
you Yeah. Yeah, there are ways in which this obviously
risk embracing team's personalities, particularly Haldane's. From my perception and
correct me if I'm wrong, seemed like they had the
potential to really mess with data, because there's that There's

(46:51):
one story where you note that after Haldane was obviously
incapacitated during a test in which he also became violent,
he insisted after it was all over that he had
never lost consciousness, even though they were like, yes you did,
we watched you. This to me is so fascinating in
a scientist, like there's some weird hubris in the mix,

(47:11):
and your depiction of him is really unflinching because you
do show both his positive and negative traits. We talked
about that a little bit earlier. But did any of
his behaviors kind of come as a surprise to you
where you're like, dude, you are a mess.

Speaker 4 (47:28):
Honestly, not really like scientists are quirky group. Man, We're
just We're just a quirky group.

Speaker 2 (47:35):
And I love us. This is I'm a scientist. But
I found his behavior to be both problematic in the
way that he would have explosions, but in that sense
endearing because I really related to what I assume. And
again this is this is an assumption on my part,

(47:56):
but why I assume were blow ups by inability to
connect and communicate with other people in what's considered a
normal fashion. And so when he had these moments, they
were usually moments of extreme frustration over something. And I
think that that's a reaction that some people have when

(48:21):
they're finding they're not being understood, and so that his
reaction was not appropriate. All adults should be able to
control their behavior, but nobody can control their feelings, right,
So I just saw this as a man who had
never had to control his behavior, but was having feelings
born of being othered. And that made me sympathize and

(48:44):
maybe even a little bit empathy. I don't have a
temper at all, but maybe even a little empathized with
some of his difficulty communicating in those moments, with regard
to the ones where he was denying being unconscious. To me,
that's so fascinating that you took it that way, because
this I would report everything. He was super honest. He
even had one lab record and I couldn't find a

(49:05):
way to squeeze it. In the book where he was
calling himself fat, that was his word for himself, and
he was describing how he had to run for the train,
and he describes again his words, his left breast flapping
and how there was pain under it, and so he
was like honorly um flitching and describing his own bodily
functions as well. So to me, my conclusion from that

(49:28):
experiment was that he had severe neurological trauma, not that
he was in denial. But that's interesting that that's how
that came across.

Speaker 1 (49:35):
Yeah, I love that you have the most compassionate reads
of him. I might not be as nice a person
because sometimes I'm like, you danged all, would you stop
being so weird? But like we all are.

Speaker 2 (49:46):
That's kind of my general reaction of people in life always,
Like my general reaction is to try and find the compassionate,
like what do we have in common? And why is
this difficult? But yeah, I think it also may have
bit different if I had to deal with him in
real life.

Speaker 1 (50:00):
Right, he seems a little like a pill. Yeah, I
loved There was one line in the book where I
was like, I am in love with this sentence. You
describe Haldane and Helen Spurway as the Bonnie and Clyde
of clandestine genetics.

Speaker 2 (50:18):
I'm glad you love that sentence, because yes, that's in
my head. They're like fully outfitted, like perfection. Yeah again,
you see all it is closed down and they're like
breaking into their experimental rooms. I loved to research with flies.

Speaker 1 (50:32):
I love it so awesome, And obviously like their work
together bonded them so deeply because their relationship evolves from
a professional one and a working relationship to a personal one.
Will you talk a little bit about that.

Speaker 2 (50:50):
Yeah, I feel like they were just a really unique
couple in the sense that they both had difficulty processing
social regular like social mandates and social norms, and I
think that was a big part of why they were
such a tightly knit couple almost from the moment they met.

(51:10):
So I mentioned earlier that JBS Haldane had been married
when they met, but his marriage had already been a
bit sour, and they didn't have a conventional marriage to
begin with. There's some indication that they were openly polyamorous
even at that time, but in the nineteen thirties, obviously
this was not socially acceptable. So when he met Helen
Spurway and they had this incredible bond over genetics, I

(51:34):
kind of loved that for them. I was cheering them
on because as someone who has like delighted in having
conversations at three am about inflammatory pathways in the liver, like,
I just really wanted that experience for somebody else, and
that that, plus they're their slight disconnect from society and

(51:58):
the way to communicate, made me feel like the two
of them really connected with things that were fundamentally important
to the both of them.

Speaker 1 (52:07):
I also couldn't help out wondering if there's like a
degree of almost trauma bond with them at that point,
Like they have been through like secret science during the Blitz,
they are part of a really groundbreaking thing that they
never get to talk about. You know, they just have
like a unique thing where no one on earth understands
me but you, and you understand all of it.

Speaker 2 (52:28):
They both went through their entire lives just like being
really really OTHEREDJBS hall Day because of his temper, so
that that part is slightly deserved, But his temper, in
my opinion, was from difficulty communicating with other people and
then held spur away. A lot of it was really

(52:48):
gendered a lot of the comments and reactions to her
were very very gendered. And she similarly just has this
passion where all they ever wanted to do was go
to lab and statistics on fruit flies, study genetics, and
they both are just like, I don't understand why there's
so many obstacles. But yeah, they both had their works

(53:09):
stolen from them because people didn't like them things like that,
So yeah, I would I would completely agree with you.
I think there's elements of trauma bonding, both from surviving
the war and also from the way that they interacted
with the rest of humanity.

Speaker 1 (53:25):
Here's a million other question. If you could choose just
one thing for readers to take away from this book,
what would it be. I know it's hard because this
is a book dense with information and cool stories.

Speaker 2 (53:40):
It's actually not that hard. I was taking a deep
breath because I have thoughts.

Speaker 1 (53:46):
You're like, I'm just shifting gears.

Speaker 2 (53:48):
Baby, Yeah, no, I know. This book started because I
wanted to write a book about scientistics fermenting on themselves.
So my original idea was a compilation of a multiple
multiple stories, and my agent, Lorie Apkmeyer, who's amazing and
always right, she was like, no, no, no, people will
lose track one story to the other. Pick one. Focus

(54:09):
on that. So that's what happened here. And the reason
that I wanted to write that book which didn't happen,
and this book, which did, is because I wanted to
give people a window into the humanity behind scientific results.
That's what I want people to take away. We're people,
were imperfect, We're genuinely doing our best. We're moving things forward.

(54:36):
Whenever we can. Sometimes we get bombed, sometimes we get
run out of funding. That all impacts research. So every
piece of scientific data, every recommendation that comes out, like
there's a story of humanity behind it. That's what I want.

Speaker 1 (54:51):
We'd love it. Was there anything else you wanted to
share or talk about related to this that we haven't
touched on.

Speaker 2 (54:58):
I can't think of anything, really. I think you've done
a really good job of letting me prattle on about
these people and how awesome they were.

Speaker 1 (55:05):
Kidding, that's not prattling, that's like, you know.

Speaker 2 (55:09):
I just want to emphasize again, like this book was
important to me because as Americans, we think about World
War Two as Pearl Harbor December seventh, nineteen forty one,
and then a time work occurs d Day, June sixth,
nineteen forty four. I'm like, that's kind of I'm guilty
of this too. I'm guilty of this too, But that's
that's sort of the history version we always get. And

(55:32):
so this book is kind of my answer to what
happened in between? Why did it take three years? Why
did what happened in between? What was life like? What
were people working on? How did what did we do
with that time to make D Day possible and save
as many lives as we could.

Speaker 1 (55:50):
It's such a good read I highly recommend for anybody.
Chamber divers is out now pretty much wherever you can
get a book there it is.

Speaker 2 (55:59):
Yeah, please support local bookstores if you're able, if you're
not able, libraries are great too. Libraries actually are a
way to support authors. There is a system there, yes,
And we just love a library, so yes.

Speaker 1 (56:12):
Also, there are cool, great people at the library, so
go there. Doctor Rachel. Just seems like a funny way
to call you. Rachel. Thank you so much for spending
this time with us. I feel spoiled a whole hour
of science and science gossip with you.

Speaker 2 (56:31):
Well, I'll be really honest, Holly, I'll talk about science
for hours to the wall. You know.

Speaker 1 (56:38):
Yeah, thanks again to doctor Rachel Lance. And that book
once again is called Chamber divers If any of the
things that she talked about in today's episode piqued your interest,
there's so much more of it in the book and
that's available now. Yeah, and be ready to read some

(56:59):
things that may or may not make you a little
bit squeamish but also impressed, terrified, and way more informed
about how we have learned about pressure and the human body.
I have some listener mail that I don't think will
scare anybody. This is about our Margaret Night episode and
it is from a listener also named Margaret, who writes

(57:22):
I often listen to the podcast while I work on
craft projects, and I just happen to be listening to
the Margaret Night episode while I was threading my loom. Yes,
as you said in the podcast, people do still hand
weave on looms, including myself. I have a smallish for
shaft loom that I make towels, scarves and fabrics for sewing.
The shuttles I use are pointed and would probably be

(57:43):
a bit painful if you got hit by one flying
toward you, but you would have to be extremely unlucky
to be hit hard enough for an injury. I do
throw the shuttle with some vigor. My weaving instructor said,
if your shuttle never comes flying out the end, you're
not throwing it hard enough. The worst that has ever
happened with my loom is this show goes clattering to
the floor. I really enjoy the podcast and look forward

(58:03):
to it every week. For pet tax I'm attaching pictures
of my pups. Buzz and May both are named after astronauts. Okay,
first of all, astronaut dogs. I'm here for all of it.
Second of all, these puppies are so cute. They are
little cobby angels and I want to kiss their faces.
It just both looks so hilarious and adorable, and they're

(58:24):
clearly like these are some good pet portraits that maybe
we're taken at like an easter situation or a springtime thing.
They're surrounded by flowers. They look like such good babies. Oh,
Buzz and May you need some hugs and kisses, so
hopefully Margaret will give you some pets and loves from us.
Thank you for that. I you know, it's one of

(58:45):
those things. I have known people that loom their own stuff,
but I don't know very much about the process, and
I have never heard about like, no, you have to
throw your shut It can't be a long way to
get it from one side to the other. Right, Yeah,
I done like teeny tiny little projects on like baby
versions of looms that are they're real in the sense

(59:07):
that they're physical things that exist in the world, but
they're not real looms. So that's a good bit of
insight and also, you know, obviously safer than the automated
ones that caused Margaret Knight to have to figure out
a way to make a safety mechanism to prevent her
coworkers from getting horribly injured. So, Margaret who wrote us,

(59:29):
thank you for your email. If you would like to
write us, you can do so at History Podcast at
iHeartRadio dot com. You can also find us on social
media as missed in History And if you have not
subscribed to the show yet, that is easy as pie
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Holly Frey

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