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Scientists Tested Impact of Nitrogen Narcosis Underwater During World War II. Here's What They Found

Scientists came together to understand the effects of underwater depths in human body by putting themselves into danger
Cover Image Source: A British submarine chaser, ca. 1939-1945. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Cover Image Source: A British submarine chaser, ca. 1939-1945. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The history of World War II is marked by tragedies, hard-fought battles, anti-fascist resistance as well as inventions from synthetic rubber to the atomic bomb. Among them was the story of scientists who put their own lives on the line to learn more about underwater survival, which helped allied forces according to Smithsonian Magazine. It all started after the Allied forces faced a tragedy in the summer of 1939 when their submarines the American USS Squalus, the British HMS Thetis, and the French Phénix went down three weeks of each other. The condition of people who managed to survive the calamity was horrendous, to say the least, this highlighted a need to invest in projects that will reveal more about underwater conditions.

Image Source: A British submarine chaser, ca. 1939-1945. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Image Source: A British submarine chaser, ca. 1939-1945. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane and Helen Spurway entered the picture and themselves became test subjects for experiments. The duo, partners in real life lived on very limited means, while their home was a lab by day and bar at night. They were fully devoted to their work with the aim of understanding what exactly happens to the human body after someone dives down beyond a certain depth. The duo along with other collaborators, used to trap themselves in diver chambers and perform various exercises. These exercises included solving math problems and putting metal balls into the right holes. They used to compare their efficiency in fulfilling these tasks within the chamber as well as outside of it. 

Surgeon Commander Seymour Grome Rainsford instructed the team to analyze the phenomenon of nitrogen narcosis. Their research revealed that nitrogen had a tremendous effect on human minds if exposed to the gas in large quantities. If people are in its presence for a long time then it becomes difficult for them to carry out activities like espionage. The team went to work as Both Haldane and Case took the challenge head-on. They took in air that was 78 percent nitrogen, to see if the gas interfered with their ability to manipulate the ball bearings or affected the time and accuracy with which they could complete the math problems. 


Present-day divers, who experience disorientation in the ocean due to nitrogen, also call it "Martini's Law," since it makes people feel drunk and stops them from concentrating on anything. This was probably what both researchers back then felt. “Slight feeling akin to what one has always been led to believe is associated with inebriation,” Case scribbled in his notebook. Haldane also tried to take notes even though he couldn’t write as coherently. The note said, “Reach top. MC says, ‘We are drunk.’ Notices above. Not so [illegible scribble]. JBSH feels abnormal. ‘Ringing’ in ears. Queer taste in the mouth. Looks darker (?) [illegible].” They were unable to finish the ball exercise and couldn't solve the math equations. The duo quickly informed the authorities that a person in such a condition should never be trusted with any task. Haldane continued his work of creating better air raid shelters with his experiment in pressure chambers. He wanted to help people with his findings if the rumored bombings occurred.

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