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The distinguished and internationally-renowned physiologist, Sir Joseph Barcroft, was born at The Glen in Newry on 26th July 1872. He was the eldest son and second child of Henry Barcroft, a manager and engineer at the Bessbrook Spinning Mill and Anna Richardson Malcolmson, a niece of John Grubb Richardson. Richardson had purchased The Glen for the couple when they had married in August 1867. 

Sir Joseph Barcroft’s workroom at the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory in the 1940s.
Sir Joseph Barcroft’s workroom at the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory in the 1940s.

Up until he was twelve, Joseph Barcroft was educated at home. His tutors were Miss Day, who later became Principal of the Ladies’ Intermediate School in Trevor Hill in Newry and a governess, Miss Barritt. Henry Barcroft had a workshop in the basement at The Glen where he carried out various scientific and engineering experiments and this work apparently gave his son an early interest in science.

Both the Barcroft and Richardson families were Quakers and, in 1884, the young Joseph was sent off to Bootham School, a Quaker school in York, where he excelled in science. In 1888, he became a pupil at The Leys School in Cambridge. While still a pupil at Leys he was allowed, in 1889, to matriculate at the University of London and take his BSc degree. Barcroft subsequently went up to King’s College, Cambridge, to read for the science tripos. 

Joseph Barcroft pictured in 1891 when he graduated with a BSc from the University of London while still a pupil at The Leys School in Cambridge. From Joseph Barcroft 1872 – 1947 by Kenneth J. Franklin (Oxford, 1953).
Joseph Barcroft pictured in 1891 when he graduated with a BSc from the University of London while still a pupil at The Leys School in Cambridge. From Joseph Barcroft 1872 – 1947 by Kenneth J. Franklin (Oxford, 1953).

His undergraduate studies had given him an interest in physiology and, after graduating, he began a research programme at the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory, work which laid the foundations for his research into haemoglobin. Barcroft’s early research led to the award of the Walsingham Prize in 1899 and a lectureship at King’s College, a post which he held for twenty-five years. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1910 and the fruit of his early work on haemoglobin was published in 1914 in an acclaimed book, The Respiratory Function of the Blood. 

Although Barcroft was a practising Quaker he was keen, nevertheless, to play his part in the First World War. After the second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 which saw the first use of poisonous gas, he was, in view of his knowledge of the respiratory system, invited to France to examine the effects of gas poisoning on soldiers. He also became the Chief Physiologist at the government’s chemical warfare research station at Porton Down, near Salisbury, where he famously used himself as a guinea pig in some of the experiments!

In 1918, Joseph Barcroft became a CBE for his war service. The early 1920s saw him becoming interested in high-altitude physiology which led to a highly successful research trip to the Peruvian Andes. In 1923 he became Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution and, three years later, he was appointed Professor of Physiology at Cambridge. Under Barcroft’s leadership the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory became one of the best in the world. In June 1933, he visited the United States where he gave a series of lectures at the Harvard Medical School. These lectures formed another major publication – Features in the Architecture of Physiological Function – in 1934. The following year Barcroft was knighted. 

Joseph Barcroft lecturing at Cambridge in 1935. From Joseph Barcroft 1872 – 1947 by Kenneth J. Franklin (Oxford, 1953).
Joseph Barcroft lecturing at Cambridge in 1935. From Joseph Barcroft 1872 – 1947 by Kenneth J. Franklin (Oxford, 1953).

During the Second World War, Sir Joseph Barcroft returned to research on chemical warfare at Porton Down. His later research at Cambridge centred on foetal physiology which resulted in his last major publication, Researches on Pre-Natal Life, the first volume of which appeared shortly before his sudden death of a heart attack on 21st March 1947.

Throughout his career Sir Joseph Barcroft received many awards and prizes including Royal Society medals (1922 and 1943) and honorary doctorates from Queen’s University Belfast (1931), the National University of Ireland (1933) and Harvard (1936). A nomination for a Nobel Prize in 1936 was unsuccessful. In 1952, Mount Barcroft in the White Mountains in California was posthumously named in his honour.

The Glen, the birthplace of Joseph Barcroft, and its demesne were purchased by John Grubb Richardson for his niece and her future husband in 1867 for £5,500. It was to remain the family home of the Barcrofts for the next eight decades. The house is now demolished. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The Glen, the birthplace of Joseph Barcroft, and its demesne were purchased by John Grubb Richardson for his niece and her future husband in 1867 for £5,500. It was to remain the family home of the Barcrofts for the next eight decades. The house is now demolished. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

In 1903 Barcroft had married Mary Agnetta (‘Minnie’) Ball, the daughter of Sir Robert Ball, Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge. They had two sons, one of whom, Henry, also became a physiologist and later became Dunville Professor of Physiology at Queen’s University, Belfast, a post for which Joseph Barcroft had unsuccessfully applied in 1902.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

By Ken Abraham

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