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John Desmond Bernal

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Title: John Desmond Bernal  
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Subject: X-ray crystallography, Alan Lindsay Mackay, List of Fellows of the Royal Society elected in 1937, Bernal sphere, Ice rules
Collection: 1901 Births, 1971 Deaths, 20Th-Century Historians, Academics of Birkbeck, University of London, Alumni of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, British Atheists, British Biophysicists, British Communists, British Former Christians, British Inventors, British People of Irish Descent, British People of Italian-Jewish Descent, British People of Portuguese-Jewish Descent, British People of Spanish-Jewish Descent, British Physicists, Communist Party of Great Britain Members, Crystallographers, Fellows of the Royal Society, Foreign Members of the Ussr Academy of Sciences, Former Roman Catholics, Historians of Science, People Educated at Bedford School, People Educated at Stonyhurst College, People from Nenagh, Space Colonization, Stalin Peace Prize Recipients, Stalinism, World Peace Council, X-Ray Crystallography
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John Desmond Bernal

John Desmond Bernal
John Desmond Bernal[1]
Born (1901-05-10)10 May 1901
Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland
Died 15 September 1971(1971-09-15) (aged 70)
London, England
Resting place Battersea Cemetery,
Morden (unmarked)[2]
Residence England
Citizenship British
Nationality United Kingdom
Fields X-ray crystallography
Institutions Birkbeck College, University of London
Alma mater Emmanuel College, Cambridge
Doctoral advisor Sir William Bragg
Doctoral students Dorothy Hodgkin, Alan Mackay, Max Perutz
Known for Science, politics and war work
Notable awards Royal Medal 1945,
Guthrie lecture 1947,
Stalin Peace Prize 1953,
Grotius Gold Medal 1959,
Bakerian Lecture 1962
Fellow of the Royal Society[3]

John Desmond Bernal FRS[3] (; 10 May 1901 – 15 September 1971) was one of the United Kingdom's best-known and most controversial scientists. Known as "Sage" to friends, Bernal is considered a pioneer in X-ray crystallography in molecular biology. He published extensively on the history of science.


  • Life 1
    • Origin and education 1.1
    • Scientific career 1.2
    • War work 1.3
      • Operation Overlord and D-Day 1.3.1
    • Writing 1.4
    • Political activism 1.5
  • Personal life 2
  • In popular culture 3
  • Works 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Origin and education

His family was Irish, of mixed Italian and Spanish/Portuguese[4] Sephardic Jewish origin on his father's side (his grandfather Jacob Genese, properly Ginesi, had adopted the family name Bernal of his paternal grandmother around 1837).[3] His father Samuel Bernal had been raised as a Catholic in Limerick and after graduating from Albert Agricultural College spent 14 years in Australia before returning to Tipperary to buy a farm, Brookwatson, near Nenagh where Bernal was brought up. His American mother, née Elizabeth Miller, whose mother was from Antrim, was a graduate of Stanford University and a journalist and had converted to Catholicism.[5][6]

Bernal was educated in England first, for one term, at Stonyhurst College which he hated. Because of this he was moved to Bedford School at the age of thirteen. There, according to Goldsmith, for five years from 1914 to 1919 he found it 'extremely unpleasant' and most of his fellow students 'bored him' though his younger brother Kevin who was also there was 'some consolation'[7] and Brown claims "he seemed to adjust easily to life" there.[8] In 1919, he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge University with a scholarship.[9][10]

At Cambridge, Bernal read both mathematics and science for a B.A. degree in 1922, which he followed by another year of natural sciences. He taught himself the theory of space groups, including the quaternion method; this became the mathematical basis of a lengthy paper on crystal structure for which he won a joint prize with Ronald G.W. Norrish in his third year. Whilst at Cambridge, he also became known as "Sage", a nickname given to him about 1920 by a young woman working in C. K. Ogden's Bookshop at the corner of Bridge Street.[11]

Scientific career

After graduation, Bernal began research under Sir William Bragg at the Davy Faraday Laboratory at the Royal Institution[12] in London. In 1924 he determined the structure of graphite and also did work on the crystal structure of bronze.[12] His strength was in analysis as much as experimental method, and his mathematical and practical treatment of determining crystal structure was widely studied, though he also developed an X-ray spectro-goniometer.[13]

In 1927, he was appointed as the first lecturer in Structural Crystallography at Cambridge, becoming the assistant director of the oestrin and sterol compounds including cholesterol in 1929, forcing a radical change of thinking among sterol chemists.[14] While at Cambridge, he analysed vitamin B1 (1933), pepsin (1934), vitamin D2 (1935), the sterols (1936), and the tobacco mosaic virus (1937).[12]

He also worked on the structure of liquid water, showing the boomerang shape of its molecule (1933). It was in Bernal's research group where, following a year working with Tiny Powell at Oxford, Dorothy Hodgkin continued her early research career. Together, in 1934, they took the first X-ray photographs of hydrated protein crystals using the trick of bathing the crystals in their mother liquor, giving one of the first glimpses of the world of molecular structure that underlies living things.[15] Max Perutz arrived as a student from Vienna in 1936 and started the work on haemoglobin that would occupy him most of his career.

However, Bernal was refused fellowships at Emmanuel and Christ's and tenure by Aaron Klug worked on ribonuclease whilst Andrew Booth developed some of the earliest computers to help with the computation. Rosalind Franklin joined from King's College and did pioneering work on viruses until her early death in 1957.

His Guthrie lecture of 1947 concentrated on proteins as the basis of life, but it was Perutz, still at Cambridge, who picked up Linus Pauling's leads. In the early 1960s, Bernal returned to the subject of the origin of life — analysing meteorites for evidence of complex molecules — and to the topic of the structure of liquids, which he talked about in his Bakerian lecture in 1962.

War work

In the early thirties Bernal had been arguing for peace, but the Spanish civil war changed that. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Bernal joined the Ministry of Home Security, where he brought in Solly Zuckerman to carry out the first proper analyses of the effects of enemy bombing and of explosions on animals and people. Their subsequent analysis of the effects of bombs on Birmingham and Hull showed that city bombing produced little disruption and production was only affected by direct hits on factories. A supper of scientists in Soho generated a multi-author book Science in War produced in a month by Allen Lane, one of the guests, arguing that science should be applied in every part of the war effort.[17]

From 1942 he and Zuckerman served as scientific advisers to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations.[12] Bernal was able to argue on both sides of Project Habbakuk, Pyke's proposal to build huge aircraft landing platforms in the North Atlantic made of ice. He rescued Max Perutz from internment, getting him to perform experiments in a meat store freezer below Smithfield Meat Market.[18] This project indirectly marked his divergence from Zuckerman, when he was recalled from a joint tour of the Middle East investigating the cooperation of army and air force, although the tour established Zuckerman's reputation as a military scientist.[19]

Operation Overlord and D-Day

After the disaster of the Dieppe raid, Bernal was determined that these mistakes not be repeated in Operation Overlord. He demonstrated the advantages of an artificial harbour to the participants of the Quebec Conference in 1943, as the only British scientist present. But his main contribution to the Normandy landings was the detailed mapping of the beaches which had to be done without attracting any German attention.[20] His knowledge of the area stemmed from research in English libraries, personal experience (he had visited Arromanches on previous holidays) and aerial surveys.[21]

At Bernal's memorial service, Zuckerman downplayed Bernal's part in the Normandy landings, saying he was not cleared for the highest levels of security.[22] Given Bernal's Marxist and pro-Soviet sympathies it is perhaps remarkable that there has never been any suggestion that he fed any information in that direction.[23] But Brown provides evidence[24][25] of Bernal's contributions to the preparation and the success of the invasion.

After assisting in the preparations for D-Day with work on the structure of the proposed landing sites and the bocage countryside beyond, Bernal landed, according to C. P. Snow, at Normandy on the afternoon of D-Day+1 in the uniform of an Instructor-Lieutenant RN to record the effectiveness of the plans. He also assisted boats floundering on the rocks using his knowledge of the area but said: I committed the frightful solecism of not knowing which was port and which side was starboard".[26]


His 1929 work The World, the Flesh and the Devil has been called "the most brilliant attempt at scientific prediction ever made" by Arthur C. Clarke.[27] It is famous for having been the first to propose the so-called Bernal sphere, a type of space habitat intended for permanent residence. The second chapter explores radical changes to human bodies and intelligence and the third discusses the impact of these on society.

In The Social Function of Science (1939) he argued that science was not an individual pursuit of abstract knowledge and that the support of research and development should be dramatically increased. Eugene Garfield, originator of the Science Citation Index, said "his idea of a centralized reprint center was in my thoughts when I first proposed the as yet nonexistent SCI in Science in 1955."[28]

Science in History (1954) is a monumental four-volume attempt to analyse the interaction between science and society. The Origin of Life (1967) gives the current ideas from Oparin and Haldane onwards.

Political activism

Although a devout Catholic in his childhood, Bernal became a socialist in Cambridge as a result of a long night arguing with a friend. He also became an atheist.[29] According to one reviewer, "This conversion, as complete as St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus, goes some way to account for, but not excuse, Bernal's blind allegiance for the rest of his life, to the Soviet Union."[30][31] He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1923.[32] His membership evidently lapsed when he returned to Cambridge in 1927 and was not renewed until 1933,[33] and he may have lost his card again shortly after this.[32]

Bernal became a prominent intellectual in political life, particularly in the 1930s. He attended the famous 1931 meeting on the history of science, where he met the Soviets Nikolai Bukharin, and Boris Hessen who gave an influential Marxist account of the work of Isaac Newton. This meeting fundamentally changed his world-view and he maintained sympathy for the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin. In 1939, Bernal published The Social Function of Science, probably the earliest text on the sociology of science.

After the second world war, although Bernal had been involved in evaluating the effects of atomic attacks against the Soviet Union,[33] he supported the World Peace Council.

On 20 September 1949, after his return from giving a speech strongly critical of western countries at a peace conference in Moscow, the Evening Star newspaper of Ipswich published an interview with Bernal in which he endorsed Soviet agriculture, the "proletarian science" of Trofim Lysenko.[21] The Lysenko affair had erupted in August 1948 when Stalin authorised Lysenko's theory of plant genetics as official Soviet orthodoxy, and refused any deviation. Bernal and the whole British scientific left were damaged by his support for Lysenko's theory, even after many scientists abandoned their sympathy for the Soviet Union.

Under pressure from the burgeoning Cold War, the president of British Royal Society had resigned from the Soviet Academy of Sciences in November 1948.[35] In November 1949, the British Association for the Advancement of Science removed Bernal from membership of its council.[36] Membership in UK radical science groups quickly declined. Unlike some of his socialist colleagues, Bernal persisted in defending the Soviet position on Lysenko. He publicly refused to accept the gaping fissures that the dispute revealed between the study of natural science and dialectical materialism.[37]

In November 1950, Pablo Picasso, a fellow communist, en route to a Soviet-sponsored[38] World Peace Congress in Sheffield created a mural in Bernal's flat at the top of No. 22 Torrington Square.[39] In 2007 this became part of the Wellcome Trust's collection[40][41] for £250,000.

Throughout the 1950s, Bernal maintained a faith in the Soviet Union as a vehicle for the creation of a socialist scientific utopia. In 1953 he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize.[42] From 1959 to 1965 he was president of the World Peace Council.

Personal life

Bernal had two children (Mike, b.1926 and Egan, b.1930)[2] with his wife Agnes Eileen Sprague (referred to as Eileen),[43] who was a secretary. He married Sprague on 21 June 1922, the day after having been awarded his BA degree. Bernal was 21, Sprague 23. Sprague was described as an active socialist and their marriage as 'open' which they both lived up to 'with great gusto'.[44]

In the 1930s he became involved in a long-term relationship with the artist Margaret Gardiner, with whom he had a son Martin Bernal (1937–2013[45]) who became a professor in the Department of Government at Cornell and author of the controversial Afrocentric work Black Athena.[46][47] She had a brief relationship about 1920 with Solly Zuckerman.[25] Gardiner referred to herself as "Mrs. Bernal", though the two never married. Eileen is mentioned as his widow in 1990.[43]

He also had a child (Jane, b.1953) with Margot Heinemann[2] as well as a brief intimate relationship with Dorothy Hodgkin, whose scientific research work he mentored.[48]

In popular culture

A fictional portrait of Bernal appears in the novel The Search, an early work of his friend C. P. Snow. He was also said to be the inspiration for the character Tengal in The Holiday by Stevie Smith.


  • Bernal, J. D. (1926). "On the Interpretation of X-Ray, Single Crystal, Rotation Photographs". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 113 (763): 117–160.  
  • The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (1929) Jonathan Cape. Scholar Robert Scholes calls this a "book of breathtaking scientific speculation" that "is probably the single most influential source of science fiction ideas."[49]
  • Aspects of Dialectical Materialism (1934) with E. F. Carritt, Ralph Fox, Hyman Levy, John Macmurray, R. Page Arnot
  • The Social Function of Science (1939) Faber & Faber
  • Science and the Humanities (1946) pamphlet
  • The Freedom of Necessity (1949)
  • The Physical Basis of Life (1951)
  • Marx and Science (1952) Marxism Today Series No. 9
  • Science and Industry in the Nineteenth Century (1953) Routledge.
  • Science in History (1954) four volumes in later editions, The Emergence of Science; The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions; The Natural Sciences in Our Time; The Social Sciences: Conclusions. Faber & Faber
  • World without War (1958)
  • A Prospect of Peace (1960)
  • Need There Be Need? (1960) pamphlet
  • The Origin of Life (1967)
  • Emergence of Science (1971)
  • The Extension of Man. A History of Physics before 1900 (1972) M.I.T. Press also as A History of Classical Physics from Antiquity to the Quantum
  • On History (1980) with Fernand Braudel
  • Engels and Science, Labour Monthly pamphlet
  • After Twenty-five Years
  • Peace to the World, British Peace Committee pamphlet
  • Bernal, J. D. (1968). "The relation of microscopic structure to molecular structure". Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics 1 (1): 81–87.  
  • Bernal, J. D. (1965). "The structure of water and its biological implications". Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology 19: 17–32.  
  • Bernal, J. D. (1953). "The Use of Fourier Transforms in Protein Crystal Analysis". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 141 (902): 71–26.  
  • Bernal, J. D. (1952). "Phase Determination in the X-Ray Diffraction Patterns of Complex Crystals and its Application to Protein Structure". Nature 169 (4311): 1007–1008.  

See also


  1. ^ Images of Bernal at the National Portrait Gallery
  2. ^ a b c Goldsmith 1980, p. 238
  3. ^ a b c d  
  4. ^ Bevis Marks Records, Vols 1–6 of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Congregation, London; Miriam Rodrigues Pereira, ed.
  5. ^ Brown, Andrew (2005). J. D. Bernal: the sage of science. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press.  
  6. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 1–3
  7. ^ Goldsmith 1980, p. 24
  8. ^ Brown 2005, p. 9
  9. ^ Goldsmith 1980, p. 26
  10. ^ Boylan, Henry (1998). A Dictionary of Irish Biography, 3rd Edition. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan. p. 25.  
  11. ^ Goldsmith 1980, p. 27
  12. ^ a b c d editors, John Dintih, Derek Gjertsen (1999). A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford University Press. Oxford: OUP.  
  13. ^ Brown 2005, p. 55,61
  14. ^ Brown 2005, p. 94 Goldsmith reports Zuckerman and Crowther being surprised Bernal was not awarded a Nobel for this, as it corrected the structure for which the 1928 award had been made.
  15. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  16. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 90,146,187
  17. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 198–9, 176
  18. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 215–20,235–7
  19. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 222–4
  20. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 238–247
  21. ^ a b Goldsmith 1980, pp. 105–108
  22. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 477–484
  23. ^ Brown 2005, p. 184
  24. ^ de Charadevian, Soraya, Dept of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge (2006). "Advocating Science for the People — review of Andrew Brown's book". Science 12 May 2006 Vol 312, no 5775. pp. 849–850. 
  25. ^ a b review by Christopher Coker of both Andrew Brown's biography of Bernal and Bernard Donovan's biography of Zukerman, 8 February 2006"Times"Solly Zuckerman and J D Bernal, . The Times (London). Retrieved 7 November 2008. 
  26. ^ Goldsmith 1980, pp. 102–112
  27. ^ Clarke, Arthur C. (2000). Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds. St Martin's Griffin, New York.  cited in Brown 2005, p. 70
  28. ^ Eugene Garfield. "Tracing the Influence of JD Bernal on the World of Science through Citation Analysis" (PDF) 
  29. ^ Peter Haugen (2009). "4: 1931-1940". Biology: Decade by Decade. Infobase Publishing. p. 85.  
  30. ^ Jan A. Witkowski. "J.D. Bernal: The Sage of Science" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-03-01 
  31. ^ Witkowski, J. A. (2007). "J. D. Bernal: The Sage of Science by Andrew Brown (2006), Oxford University Press". The FASEB Journal 21 (2): 302.  
  32. ^ a b Goldsmith 1980, p. 31
  33. ^ a b Brown 2005, p. 269
  34. ^ J.D. Bernal (18 September 1948). "Letter". XXXVI. New Statesman. pp. 238–9  quoted in Brown 2005, p. 325
  35. ^ Brown 2005, p. 304
  36. ^ Goldsmith 1980, pp. 182 et seq
  37. ^ Goldsmith 1980, pp. 189 et seq
  38. ^ Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, p. 181
  39. ^ Goldsmith 1980, p. picture
  40. ^ The night that Picasso was a little plastered, The Times, 2 April 2007.
  41. ^ Bernal's Picasso goes on show in London at Wellcome Collection, Culture24, UK, 14 January 2008.
  42. ^ Yearbook of the  
  43. ^ a b Brief biography of Bernal at the National Portrait Gallery, London
  44. ^ Brown, A. P. (2007). "J D Bernal: The sage of science". Journal of Physics: Conference Series 57: 61.  
  45. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Margaret Gardiner
  46. ^ Morgan, Janet (5 January 2005). "Margaret Gardiner, obituary in The Guardian, 5 January 2005". London. Retrieved 6 April 2008. 
  47. ^ "Margaret Gardiner, obituary by Nchima Trust". Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  48. ^ Brown 2005, p. 139
  49. ^  


  • Brown, Andrew (2005). "J D Bernal—The Sage of Science". Oxford:  
  • John Finch; 'A Nobel Fellow On Every Floor', Medical Research Council 2008, 381 pp, ISBN 978-1-84046-940-0; this book is all about the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge.
  • Goldsmith, Maurice (1980). Sage: A Life of J. D. Bernal. London:  
  • The Visible College (1978) Gary Werskey, on Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, Hyman Levy and Joseph Needham, 2nd edition 1988
  • Swann, Brenda; Aprahanian, Francis, eds. (1999). J. D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics.  
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: ‘Bernal, (John) Desmond (1901–1971)’ by Robert Olby, first published Sept 2004, 2870 words, with portrait illustration
  • Surridge, C (1999). "50 years of biomolecular structure at Birkbeck: Bernal's legacy".  
  • Breathnach, C S (1995). "Desmond Bernal and his role in the biological exploitation of X-ray crystallography".  

External links

  • 'Bernal and the Social Function of Science' A Masterclass by Chris Freeman, Science Policy Research Unit, Sussex Freeview video provided by the Vega Science Trust.
  • 'The Relevance of Bernal's Questions'R. M. Young
  • Bernal papers at London School of Economics Archives (relating to his involvement with the peace movement)
  • Gary Werskey — The Marxist Critique of Capitalist Science: A History in Three Movements?
  • Marxist Writers: John Desmond Bernal (Free versions of some of his writings.)
  • 'Century of Endeavour: J D Bernal and the Science and Society Theme'Roy Johnston, 1999,
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