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J. D. Bernal

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John Desmond Bernal
Bernal in 1949, photo by Wolfgang Suschitzky[5]
Born(1901-05-10)10 May 1901
Died15 September 1971(1971-09-15) (aged 70)
London, England
Resting placeBattersea Cemetery,
Morden (unmarked)[6]
EducationBedford School
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge
Known forBernal chart
Bernal sphere
Bernal stacking
Bernal–Fowler rules
Zone melting
Agnes Eileen Sprague
(m. 1922)
Children4, including Martin
AwardsRoyal Medal (1945)
Guthrie lecture (1947)
Stalin Peace Prize (1953)
Grotius Gold Medal (1959)
Bakerian Lecture (1962)
Scientific career
FieldsX-ray crystallography
InstitutionsBirkbeck College, University of London
Doctoral advisorWilliam Henry Bragg[1]
Doctoral students
Military career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Navy
Years of service1944–1945
RankLieutenant (RNVR)
Battles/warsSecond World War

John Desmond Bernal FRS[7] (/bərˈnɑːl/; 10 May 1901 – 15 September 1971) was an Irish scientist who pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography in molecular biology. He published extensively on the history of science. In addition, Bernal wrote popular books on science and society. He was a communist activist and a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

Education and early life


His family was Irish, with a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Sephardic Jewish on his father's side[8] (his grandfather Jacob Genese, properly Ginesi, had adopted the family name Bernal of his paternal grandmother around 1837).[7] 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 County 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.[9][10] Elizabeth was raised Protestant and would send John to a Protestant school in his youth.[11]

Bernal was educated in England first for one term at Stonyhurst College, which he hated and so was moved to Bedford School at the age of 13. A pupil at the school from 1914 to 1919, according to Goldsmith he found it "extremely unpleasant" and most of his fellow students "bored him", but his younger brother Kevin, who was also there, was "some consolation",[12] while Brown claims that "he seemed to adjust easily to life" there.[13] In 1919, he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, with a scholarship.[14][15]

At Cambridge, Bernal read both mathematics and science for a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1922, which he followed by another year of natural sciences. He taught himself the theory of space groups, including the quaternion method, which 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. At Cambridge, he also became known as "Sage", a nickname given to him about 1920 by a young woman working in Charles Kay Ogden's Bookshop at the corner of Bridge Street.[16]

Career and research


After his graduation, Bernal began research under William Henry Bragg at the Davy Faraday Laboratory at the Royal Institution[17] in London. In 1924 he determined the structure of graphite (the Bernal stacking describes the registry of two graphite planes) and also did work on the crystal structure of bronze.[17] His strength was in analysis as much as experimental method, and his mathematical and practical treatment of determining crystal structure was widely studied, but he also developed an X-ray spectro-goniometer.[18]

In 1927, he was appointed as the first lecturer in Structural Crystallography at Cambridge, becoming the assistant director of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1934. There, he started applying his crystallographic techniques to organic molecules, starting with oestrin and sterol compounds including cholesterol in 1929, forcing a radical change of thinking among sterol chemists.[19] While at Cambridge, he analysed vitamin B1 (1933), pepsin (1934), vitamin D2 (1935), the sterols (1936) and the tobacco mosaic virus (1937).[17]

He also worked on the structure of liquid water, showing the boomerang shape of its molecule (1933). It was in Bernal's research group that after a year working with Tiny Powell at Oxford, Dorothy Hodgkin continued her early research career.[2] 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.[20] 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 Ernest Rutherford, who disliked him,[21] and in 1937, Bernal became Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London, a department that had been brought to the first rank by Patrick Blackett. The same year, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.[7] After World War II, he established Birkbeck's Biomolecular Research Laboratory in two Georgian houses in Torrington Square with 15 researchers. It was there that Aaron Klug and Rosalind Franklin worked on tobacco mosaic virus, and Andrew Donald Booth developed some of the earliest computers to help with the computation.

His Guthrie lecture of 1947 concentrated on proteins as the basis of life, but it was Max Perutz, still at Cambridge, who developed the X-ray structural analysis of globular proteins in Britain. 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.[22]

Ministry of Home Security


In the early 1930s, Bernal had been arguing for peace, but that changed after the Spanish Civil War started. 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 Kingston upon Hull showed that city bombing produced little disruption and production was affected only by direct hits on factories. A supper for scientists organised by the Tots and Quots 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.[23]

From 1942, he and Zuckerman served as scientific advisers to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations.[17] Bernal was able to argue on both sides of Project Habbakuk, Geoffrey 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 on ice related to Habbakuk in a meat store freezer below Smithfield Meat Market.[24] This project indirectly marked his divergence from Zuckerman, when he was recalled from a joint tour of the Middle East investigating the co-operation of army and air force, but the tour established Zuckerman's reputation as a military scientist.[25]

Operation Overlord and D-Day


After the disaster of the Dieppe raid, Bernal was determined that its 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. On 3 June 1944, he was commissioned a temporary lieutenant (Special Branch) in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR).[26] His main contribution to the Normandy landings was the detailed mapping of the beaches, which had to be done without attracting any German attention.[27] His knowledge of the area stemmed from research in English libraries, personal experience (he had visited Arromanches on previous holidays) and aerial surveys.[28]

At Bernal's memorial service, Zuckerman downplayed Bernal's part in the Normandy landings and said that he was not cleared for the highest levels of security.[29] 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.[30] However, Brown provides evidence[31][32] 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 Royal Navy to record the effectiveness of the plans. He also assisted boats floundering on the rocks by using his knowledge of the area but said, "I committed the frightful solecism of not knowing which was port and which side was starboard".[33]



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.[34] 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."[35]

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.

Other publications include

  • 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. Bibcode:1926RSPSA.113..117B. doi:10.1098/rspa.1926.0143.
  • 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."[36]
  • 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.
  • Bernal, J. D. (1953). "Stalin as Scientist". Modern Quarterly. 8 (3).
  • 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
  • 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. doi:10.1017/S0033583500000469. PMID 4885734. S2CID 32833369.
  • Bernal, J. D. (1965). "The structure of water and its biological implications". Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology. 19: 17–32. PMID 5849048.
  • Bernal, J. D. (1953). "The Use of Fourier Transforms in Protein Crystal Analysis". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 141 (902): 71–85. Bibcode:1953RSPSB.141...71B. doi:10.1098/rspb.1953.0022. PMID 13047272. S2CID 8614975.
  • 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. Bibcode:1952Natur.169.1007B. doi:10.1038/1691007a0. PMID 14947858. S2CID 2503892.

Political activism


Raised as a Catholic, Bernal became a socialist in Cambridge as a result of a long night arguing with a friend. He also became an atheist.[37] 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".[38] He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1923.[39] His membership evidently lapsed when he returned to Cambridge in 1927 and was not renewed until 1933,[40] and he may have lost his card again shortly afterward.[39]

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. That 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 World War II, although Bernal had been involved in evaluating the effects of atomic attacks against the Soviet Union,[40] he supported the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace organised in Communist Poland in 1948. Afterwards, he wrote a letter to the New Statesman warning that the US was preparing "a war for complete world domination".[41] Consequently, when Bernal was invited to a world peace conference in New York in February 1949, his visa was refused. However, he was allowed into France in April for the World Congress of the Partisans of Peace, with Frédéric Joliot-Curie as president and Bernal as vice-president. The following year the organisation changed its name to 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 and the "proletarian science" of Trofim Lysenko.[28] The Lysenko affair had erupted in August 1948, when Stalin authorised Lysenko's theory of plant genetics as official Soviet orthodoxy, and he refused any deviation. Bernal and the whole British scientific left were damaged by his support for Lysenko's theory, even after many scientists had 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.[42] In November 1949, the British Association for the Advancement of Science removed Bernal from membership of its council.[43] Membership in British 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.[44]

In November 1950, Pablo Picasso, a fellow communist, en route to a Soviet-sponsored[45] World Peace Congress in Sheffield created a mural in Bernal's flat at the top of No. 22 Torrington Square.[46] In 2007, it became part of the Wellcome Trust's collection[47][48] 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.[49] From 1959 to 1965, he was president of the World Peace Council.

Awards and honours


Bernal was awarded the Royal Medal in 1945,[50] the Guthrie lecture in 1947,[51][52] the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953,[49] the Grotius Gold Medal in 1959[38] and the Bakerian Lecture in 1962.[22][53]

Bernal was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1937.[7] A fictional portrait of Bernal appears in the novel The Search, an early work of his friend C. P. Snow. He was also said[by whom?] to be the inspiration for the character Tengal in The Holiday by Stevie Smith. The Bernal Lecture and its successor the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Lecture Medal and Lecture were named in his honour.[52]



The Bernal Building at the University of Limerick was named in his honour. He is the eponym of the John Desmond Bernal Prize.

Bernal's brass microscope, in the possession of his great-grandson, was restored in an episode of the BBC Television series The Repair Shop shown in April 2023.[54]

Personal life


Bernal had two children – Mike (1926–2016) and Egan (b.1930)[6] – with his wife Agnes Eileen Sprague (1898–1990), a secretary, who was usually referred to as Eileen.[55] 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'.[56]

In the early 1930s he had a brief intimate relationship with chemist Dorothy Hodgkin, whose scientific research work he mentored.[2][57] He had a long-term relationship with the artists' patron Margaret Gardiner. Their son Martin Bernal (1937–2013)[58] was a professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University and author of the controversial Afrocentric work Black Athena.[59][60] Margaret referred to herself as "Mrs. Bernal", though the two never married. Eileen is mentioned as his widow in 1990.[55]

He also had a child (Jane, born 1953) with Margot Heinemann.[6]




  1. ^ "William Bragg - the Mathematics Genealogy Project".
  2. ^ a b c Hodgkin, Dorothy Mary Crowfoot (1937). X-ray crystallography and the chemistry of the sterols. lib.cam.ac.uk (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. EThOS uk.bl.ethos.727110.
  3. ^ "Alan Mackay - the Mathematics Genealogy Project".
  4. ^ "Max Perutz - the Mathematics Genealogy Project".
  5. ^ Images of Bernal at the National Portrait Gallery
  6. ^ a b c Goldsmith 1980, p. 238
  7. ^ a b c d Hodgkin, D. M. C. (1980). "John Desmond Bernal. 10 May 1901-15 September 1971". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 26: 16–84. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1980.0002.
  8. ^ Bevis Marks Records, Vols 1–6 of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Congregation, London; Miriam Rodrigues Pereira, ed.
  9. ^ Brown, Andrew (2005). J. D. Bernal: the sage of science. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-851544-8.
  10. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 1–3
  11. ^ J. D. Bernal: The Sage of Science. OUP Oxford. 24 November 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-851544-9.
  12. ^ Goldsmith 1980, p. 24
  13. ^ Brown 2005, p. 9
  14. ^ Goldsmith 1980, p. 26
  15. ^ Boylan, Henry (1998). A Dictionary of Irish Biography, 3rd Edition. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan. p. 25. ISBN 0-7171-2945-4.
  16. ^ Goldsmith 1980, p. 27
  17. ^ a b c d John Dintih; Derek Gjertsen, eds. (1999). A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280086-8.
  18. ^ Brown 2005, p. 55,61
  19. ^ Brown 2005, p. 94 Goldsmith reports Zuckerman and Crowther were surprised Bernal was not awarded a Nobel for that since it corrected the structure for which the 1928 award had been made.
  20. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  21. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 90, 146, 187
  22. ^ a b The structure of liquids. Bakerian Lecture. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 280, 299-322.
  23. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 198–9, 176
  24. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 215–20, 235–7
  25. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 222–4
  26. ^ "No. 36590". The London Gazette. 30 June 1944. p. 3099.
  27. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 238–247
  28. ^ a b Goldsmith 1980, pp. 105–108
  29. ^ Brown 2005, pp. 477–484
  30. ^ Brown 2005, p. 184
  31. ^ de Charadevian, Soraya (2006). Brown, Andrew (ed.). "Advocating Science for the People". Science. 312 (5775): 849–850. doi:10.1126/science.1126642. ISSN 0036-8075. JSTOR 3846181. S2CID 220096079.
  32. ^ "Solly Zuckerman and J D Bernal, Times review by Christopher Coker of both Andrew Brown's biography of Bernal and Bernard Donovan's biography of Zukerman, 8 February 2006". The Times. London. Archived from the original on 21 June 2008. Retrieved 7 November 2008.
  33. ^ Goldsmith 1980, pp. 102–112
  34. ^ Clarke, Arthur C. (2000). Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds. St Martin's Griffin, New York. cited in Brown 2005, p. 70
  35. ^ Eugene Garfield. "Tracing the Influence of JD Bernal on the World of Science through Citation Analysis" (PDF). Retrieved 10 March 2011.
  36. ^ Scholes, Robert; Rabkin, Eric S. (1977). "Bibliography III: Science Backgrounds". Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-502174-5.
  37. ^ Haugen, Peter (2009). "4: 1931-1940". Biology: Decade by Decade. Infobase Publishing. p. 85. ISBN 9781438109770. Although a devout Catholic in his boyhood, he became an outspoken atheist, socialist, and sometime Communist Party member...
  38. ^ a b Witkowski, J. A. (2007). "J. D. Bernal: The Sage of Science by Andrew Brown (2006), Oxford University Press". The FASEB Journal. 21 (2): 302–304. doi:10.1096/fj.07-0202ufm.
  39. ^ a b Goldsmith 1980, p. 31
  40. ^ a b Brown 2005, p. 269
  41. ^ J.D. Bernal (18 September 1948). "Letter". New Statesman. Vol. XXXVI. pp. 238–239. quoted in Brown 2005, p. 325
  42. ^ Brown 2005, p. 304
  43. ^ Goldsmith 1980, pp. 182 et seq
  44. ^ Goldsmith 1980, pp. 189 et seq
  45. ^ Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, p. 181
  46. ^ Goldsmith 1980, p. picture
  47. ^ The night that Picasso was a little plastered, The Times, 2 April 2007.
  48. ^ Bernal's Picasso goes on show in London at Wellcome Collection, Culture24, UK, 14 January 2008.
  49. ^ a b Yearbook of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (in Russian). Moscow: Sovetskaya Enciklopediya. 1959.
  50. ^ "Royal Medals". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 25 September 2015.
  51. ^ The physical basis of life. (The Guthrie Lecture of the Physical Society.) Proc. phys. Soc. Lond. A 62, 357. Also published (1951) Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  52. ^ a b "Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal and Lecture | Royal Society". 30 November 2023.
  53. ^ Hodgkin, Dorothy Mary Crowfoot (1980). "John Desmond Bernal, 10 May 1901 - 15 September 1971". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 26: 16–84. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1980.0002.
  54. ^ "Live Series 12: Episode 4". The Repair Shop. Series 12. Episode 4. 12 April 2023. BBC Television. Retrieved 12 April 2023.
  55. ^ a b Brief biography of Bernal at the National Portrait Gallery, London
  56. ^ Brown, A. P. (2007). "J D Bernal: The sage of science". Journal of Physics: Conference Series. 57 (1): 61–72. Bibcode:2007JPhCS..57...61B. doi:10.1088/1742-6596/57/1/006.
  57. ^ Brown 2005, p. 139
  58. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Margaret Gardiner
  59. ^ Morgan, Janet (5 January 2005). "Margaret Gardiner, obituary in The Guardian, 5 January 2005".
  60. ^ "Margaret Gardiner, obituary by Nchima Trust". Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 28 February 2011.