Letters from the Peruvian Andes, by Joseph Barcroft Spread 0

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Letters from the Peruvian Andes, by Joseph Barcroft

Scientists occasionally join expeditions for very specific purposes: in the case of Sir Joseph Barcroft (1872-1947), it was an opportunity to examine high altitude physiology. Barcroft’s specialism at this period was blood gases. His book ‘The respiratory function of the blood’ appeared in 1914 and he spend the First World War as Chief Physiologist at Porton Down, researching the medical effects of gas poisoning, following the use of gas as a weapon on the Western Front. By 1919, Barcroft had returned to his more usual scientific career at Cambridge.

In 1921, Barcroft led the Royal Society’s contribution to an Anglo-American expedition to the Peruvian Andes, with the intention of continuing the pre-war work of John Scott Haldane’s expedition to Pike’s Peak, Colorado. Here, Haldane (1860-1936) investigated how acclimatization to high altitude might lead to the lungs secreting oxygen into the blood at higher pressure. Further laboratory experiment had found little evidence of oxygen secretion and Barcroft was keen to gain more field research data on the physiological changes of life spent in high mountainous terrain. The Andean journey proved exceptionally valuable, prompting a second edition of Barcroft’s book, now renamed ‘Respiratory function of the blood. Lessons from high altitude’ and by 1925, Barcroft had been appointed to the Chair of Physiology at Cambridge University.

This typescript account of his journeying, extracted from Barcroft’s contemporary letters and diary, was presented to the Royal Society by his son, another distinguished physiologist and Fellow, Professor Henry Barcroft (1904-1998). The Royal Society’s Peru High Altitude Committee had overseen and supported Joseph Barcroft’s scientific reports published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ and this document provides an interesting accompaniment to that work.