Mabel FitzGerald and the mystery of oxygen sensing

An image showing a framed portrait of Mabel FitzGerald

Source: Photograph © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, 41, 4/Frame © Swindler & Swindler @ Foli

Katharine Sanderson celebrates the tenacious and brilliant researcher who came tantalizingly close to describing oxygen sensing, a concept that earned the Nobel prize over 100 years later

In 1911 a group of four scientists set off in relative luxury to the top of Pikes Peak, a mountain just outside Colorado Springs with an elevation of 4300m above sea level. This group included ace biologist John Scott Haldane who was intent on getting some more data to investigate the effects of high altitude on the respiratory system in humans. Arriving by train at the summit, Haldane’s team spent 5 weeks there in a comfortable hotel conducting meticulous experiments. They investigated the alveolar partial pressure of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the expedition members during acclimatisation to altitude, and throughout their stay. They also took measurements of haemoglobin concentration and oxygen capacity of the blood.

Meanwhile another ace, yet less well-known biologist was also scaling the mountains around Colorado, but in significantly less luxury. That biologist, Mabel FitzGerald, gathered data on how altitude affects blood oxygen levels at incremental altitudes, in the miners and other residents of the many small towns she passed through. Her research was to be instrumental in working out how our body responds to changing oxygen levels. Her contributions outside the circle of expertise she worked in have long been overlooked.