The Full Wiki

John Desmond Bernal: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

John Desmond Bernal

John Desmond Bernal[1]
Born 10 May 1901
Nenagh, Co. Tipperary
Died 15 September 1971
London, buried 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
Known for Science, politics and war work
Notable awards Stalin Peace Prize in 1953

John Desmond Bernal FRS (b.10 May 1901, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, d.London, 15 September 1971) was one of Britain’s best known and most controversial scientists, widely recognised as "Sage" for his knowledge and wisdom[2], and well known for pioneering X-ray crystallography.


Education and early career

Bernal was educated in England first at Stonyhurst College[2] where according to biographer Maurice Goldsmith there was no science taught till the sixth form. Because of this he was moved to Bedford School at the age of thirteen[2]. There, according to Goldsmith, for five years from 1914-1919 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'[2] In 1919 he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge University with a mathematical scholarship[2][3].

At Cambridge Bernal studied both mathematics and science for a BA 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 later work on crystal structure. Whilst at Cambridge he also became known as "Sage", a nickname given to him about 1920 by a young woman working in Ogden's Bookshop at the corner of Bridge Street.[2]


After graduation, Bernal began research under Sir William Bragg at the Davy Faraday Laboratory at the Royal Institution[4] in London. In 1924 he determined the structure of graphite.[4] He also did work on bronze.[4] He is also famous for having firstly proposed in 1929 the so-called Bernal sphere, a type of space habitat intended as a long-term home for permanent residents.

While at Cambridge, he worked on the structure of vitamin B1 (1933), pepsin (1934), vitamin D2 (1935), the sterols (1936), and the tobacco mosaic virus (1937).[4] It was in his research group in Cambridge that Dorothy Hodgkin started her research. Together, in 1934, they took the first X-ray photographs of hydrated protein crystals. Other prominent scientists who studied with him include Rosalind Franklin, Aaron Klug and Max Perutz.

In 1937, Bernal became Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Political activism

Bernal was a prominent intellectual in political life, particularly in the 1930s after he had left the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1933.[2] According to biographer Maurice Goldsmith,[2] he did not so much withdraw from the CPGB, but rather he lost his membership card and did not renew it. He had joined in 1923.[2]

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 Stalin. In 1939, Bernal published The Social Function of Science, probably the earliest text on the sociology of science.

On 20 September 1949, the Evening Star newspaper of Ipswich published an interview with Bernal in which he endorsed the "proletarian science" of Trofim Lysenko.[2] The Lysenko affair had erupted in August 1948 when Stalin authorised Lysenko's bogus theory of plant genetics as official Soviet orthodoxy, and refused any deviation.

Bernal and the whole British scientific left were damaged by their support for Lysenko's theory, even after many scientists abandoned their sympathy for the Soviet Union. Under pressure from the burgeoning Cold War, the British Royal Society severed relations with the Soviet Academy of Sciences in November 1948. Because of his endorsement of Lysenko, in 1949 the US refused to grant Bernal a visa for a visit. The same year the British Association for the Advancement of Science stripped Bernal of his membership.[2][nb 1] 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 Marxism.[2][nb 2]

In November 1950, Picasso, a fellow communist, en-route to a Soviet-sponsored (Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, p. 181) World Peace Congress in Sheffield created a mural in Bernal's Torrington Square flat. In 2007 this became part of the Wellcome Trust's collection[5].

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.[6] From 1959-1965 he was chairman of the World Peace Council.

War work

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Bernal joined the Ministry of Home Security, where he worked with Solly Zuckerman to carry out an important analysis of the effects of enemy bombing. Later in the war he served as scientific adviser to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations.[4]

A biographer claimed[2] that he was a joint inventor of the Mulberry Harbour. However, controversy developed around Bernal's role in the planning of D-Day, especially in respect to the authenticity of an account given by Bernal of his crossing of the Channel on D-Day plus 1 and 2. Brown[7][8][9] provides strong evidence of Bernal's decisive contributions to the preparation and the success of the invasion. Brown states that it was Solly Zuckerman who raised doubts about Bernal's role, despite having earlier collaborated with him on operational matters. Brown cites Zuckerman's character as the main reason for his accusations, although political divergences must have played a role as well.

After helping orchestrate D-Day, Bernal landed at Normandy on D-Day + 1. It was said that a letter of his went astray in early 1944, and this nearly led to the postponement of D-Day. (Source: film account by his younger colleague at Birkbeck College, Professor Alan Mackay FRS, who quoted Bernal on this fact). His extensive knowledge of the area stemmed from a combination of research in English libraries and personal experience, as he had visited the area on previous holidays. The Navy temporarily assigned him the rank of commander so he would not stand out as a civilian amongst the invasion forces. However, the members of his unit were less than convinced as he directed a vehicle using the terms "left" and "right" instead of "port" and "starboard."


His family was of mixed Italian and Spanish/Portuguese[10] 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).[11] His father Samuel Bernal had been raised as a Catholic and his American mother, née Elizabeth Miller, had converted to Catholicism. She was a graduate of Stanford University and a journalist.

Bernal had two children (Mike, b.1926 and Egan, b.1930)[2] with his wife Agnes Eileen Sprague (referred to as Eileen)[12], 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 'open' which they both lived up to 'with great gusto'[13]. He also had a child (Jane, b.1953) with Margot Heinemann.[2] Eileen is mentioned as his widow in 1990[12].

Bernal also had a long-term professional and, intermittently, intimate relationship with Dorothy Hodgkin, whose scientific research work he mentored.

In the 1930s he became involved in a long-term relationship with the artist Margaret Gardiner, with whom he had a son Martin Bernal, (b.1936) who became a professor of philosophy and author of the controversial Afrocentric work Black Athena.[14][15] Gardiner always referred to herself as "Mrs. Bernal", though the two never married. She had had a brief relationship about 1920 with Solly Zuckerman.[9] Gardiner was with Bernal in Leningrad when Sergey Kirov, a potential rival to Stalin, was assassinated[13].

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.

Life is a partial, continuous, progressive, multiform and conditionally interactive self-realization of the potentialities of atomic electron states.
 — Bernal, MSN Encarta


  • The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (1929) [1]
  • Aspects of Dialectical Materialism (1934) with E. F. Carritt, Ralph Fox, Hyman Levy, John Macmurray, R. Page Arnot
  • The Social Function of Science (1939)
  • 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)
  • 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
  • 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) 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

Text notes

  1. ^ pp 182 et seq
  2. ^ pp 189 et seq


  1. ^ Images of Bernal at the National Portrait Gallery
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Goldsmith, Maurice (1980). "Sage: A Life of J D Bernal". London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0 09 139550. 
  3. ^ Boylan, Henry (1998). A Dictionary of Irish Biography, 3rd Edition. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan. pp. 25. ISBN 0-7171-2945-4. 
  4. ^ a b c d e A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford University Press. Oxford: OUP. 1999. ISBN 0-1928-0086-8. 
  5. ^ The Times, 2 April 2007 , The night that Picasso was a little plastered
  6. ^ (in Russian) Yearbook of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Moscow: Sovetskaya Enciklopediya. 1959. 
  7. ^ Brown, Andrew (2005). J D Bernal—The Sage of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 851544 8. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ a b "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". London.,,25350-2030656,00.html. Retrieved 7 November 2008. 
  10. ^ Bevis Marks Records, Vols 1 - 6 of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Congregation, London; Miriam Rodrigues Pereira, ed.
  11. ^ Hodgkin, Dorothy M. C. (November 1980). "John Desmond Bernal". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 26: p17. Retrieved 2008-01-04. 
  12. ^ a b Brief biography of Bernal at the National Portrait Gallery, London
  13. ^ a b "J D Bernal: the sage of science - A P Brown, J F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, J Phys: Conference Series Vol 57 (2007) pp61-72 Includes pictures of Bernal with Sprague and Gardiner". Retrieved 9 October 2009. 
  14. ^ "Margaret Gardiner, obituary in The Guardian, 5 January 2005". Retrieved 6 April 2008. 
  15. ^ "Margaret Gardiner, obituary by Nchima Trust". Retrieved 6 April 2008. 

See also


  • John Finch; 'A Nobel Fellow On Every Floor', Medical Research Council 2008, 381 pp, ISBN 978-1840469-40-0; this book is all about the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge.
  • The Visible College (1978) Gary Werskey, on Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, Hyman Levy and Joseph Needham, 2nd edition 1988
  • Swann, Brenda (1999). J D Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics. Verso. ISBN 0 1859 485 40, 97818598485 48. 
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: ‘Bernal, (John) Desmond (1901–1971)’,by Robert Olby, first published Sept 2004, 2870 words, with portrait illustration
  • Mackay, Alan L (2003). "J D Bernal (1901-1971) in perspective". J. Biosci. 28 (5): pp. 539–46. 2003 Sep. doi:10.1007/BF02703329. PMID 14517357. 
  • Surridge, C (1999). "50 years of biomolecular structure at Birkbeck: Bernal's legacy". Nature Structural Biology 6 (1): pp. 13–4. 1999 Jan. doi:10.1038/4879. PMID 9886283. 
  • Breathnach, C S (1995). "Desmond Bernal and his role in the biological exploitation of X-ray crystallography". Journal of medical biography 3 (4): pp. 197–200. 1995 Nov. PMID 11616361. 
  • Bernal, J D (1968). "The relation of microscopic structure to molecular structure". Q. Rev. Biophys. 1 (1): pp. 81–7. 1968 May. doi:10.1017/S0033583500000469. PMID 4885734. 
  • Bernal, J D (1965). "The structure of water and its biological implications". Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. 19: pp. 17–32. PMID 5849048. 
  • Bernal, J D (1953). "The use of Fourier transforms in protein crystal analysis". Proc. R. Soc. Lond., B, Biol. Sci. 141 (902): pp. 71–85. 1953 Mar 11. doi:10.1098/rspb.1953.0022. PMID 13047272. 
  • Bernal, J D (1952). "Phase determination in the x-ray diffraction patterns of complex crystals and its application to protein structure". Nature 169 (4311): pp. 1007–8. 1952 Jun 14. doi:10.1038/1691007a0. PMID 14947858. 

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John Desmond Bernal (1901-05-101971-09-15) was an Irish-born scientist known for pioneering X-ray crystallography.


The Social Function of Science (1939)

Routledge, 1946; digitized 2007

  • World Encyclopaedia. -- Behind these lies another prospect of greater and more permanent importance; that of an attempt at a comprehensive and continually revised presentation of the whole of science in its social context, an idea most persuasively put forward by H. G. Wells in his appeal for a World Encyclopaedia of which he has already given us a foretaste in his celebrated outlines. The encyclopaedic movement was a great rallying point of the liberal revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The real encyclopaedia should not be what the Encyclopaedia Britannica has degenerated into, a mere mass of unrelated knowledge sold by high-pressure salesmanship, but a coherent expression of the living and changing body of thought; it should sum up what is for the moment the spirit of the age:

    "We have been gradually brought to the pitch of imagining and framing our preliminary ideas of a federal world control of such things as communications, health, money, economic adjustments, and the suppression of crime. In all these material things we have begun to foresee the possibility of a world-wide network being woven between all men about the earth. So much of the World Peace has been brought into the range of -- what shall I call it? -- the general imagination. But I do not think we have yet given sufficient attention to the prior necessity, of linking together its mental organizations into a much closer accord than obtains at the present time. All these ideas of unifying mankind's affairs depend ultimately for their realization on mankind having a unified mind for the job. The want of such effective mental unification is the key to most of our present frustrations. While men's minds are still confused, their social and political relations will remain in confusion, however great the forces that are grinding them against each other and however tragic and monstrous the consequences.

    "This World Encyclopaedia would be the mental background of every intelligent man in the world. It would be alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension and replacement from the original thinkers in the world everywhere. Every university and research institution should be feeding it. Every fresh mind should be brought into contact with its standing editorial organization. And on the other hand, its contents would be the standard source of material for the instructional side of school and college work, for the verification of facts and the testing of statements -- everywhere in the world. Even journalists would deign to use it; even newspaper proprietors might be made to respect it." -- H. G. Wells' World Brain, pp.39-40 (p. 306)

  • The original French Encyclopaedia which did attempt these things was, however, made in the period of relative quiet when the forces of liberation were gathering ready to break their bonds. We have already entered the second period of revolutionary struggle and the quiet thought necessary to make such an effort will not be easy to find, but some effort is worth making because the combined assault on science and humanity by the forces of barbarism has against it, as yet, no general and coherent statement on the part of those who believe in democracy and the need for the people of the world to take over the active control of production and administration for their own safety and welfare.
    • CHAPTER XI. SCIENTIFIC COMMUNICATION. The Function of Scientific Publication (pp. 306-307)
  • In science men have learned consciously to subordinate themselves to a common purpose without losing the individuality of their achievements. Each one knows that his work depends on that of his predecessors and colleagues, and that it can only reach its fruition through the work of his successors. In science men collaborate not because they are forced to by superior authority or because they blindly follow some chosen leader, but because they realize that only in this willing collaboration can each man find his goal.
    • CHAPTER XVI. THE SOCIAL FUNCTION OF SCIENCE. The Transformation of Science (pp. 415-416)

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address