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Bernal, John Desmond


(b. Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland, 10 May 1901; d. London, England. 15 September 1971),

crystallography, molecular biology.

Desmond Bernal’s first Christian name was John but was never used by his intimates.

Like almost everything else about him, his family origins were unusual. His father was what used to be called a squireen, somewhere between a farmer and a Catholic Irish squire. His mother was an American, educated at Stanford, who wrote some interesting journalism and had considerable resemblances to a Henry James expatriate heroine.

There were, as happened throughout Bernal’s life, legends about this heredity, for he was a mythopoeic character about whom stories, and inaccurate statements of fact, massively accumulated. For private circulation there once appeared a loving document about him entitled The Irish Jew. In fact, Bernal is sometimes a Jewish name in Spain. It is possible that a Jewish forebear, conceivably a Marrano, had once settled in Ireland. If there were any Jewish genes at all in the family, however, they must have arrived many generations back. To anyone interested in social niceties, Bernal was by birth an Irish Catholic gentleman who had an upper-class English education and spoke all his life with the accent of a privileged Englishman.

Bernal was the oldest of three children. He was much attached to his mother but, so it seems, on bad terms in his boyhood with his father. There was a certain amount of money in the family. How much is hard to guess; but later he possessed some capital and with characteristic abandon and generosity was ready to give it away. He was sent away to boarding schools in England, which would have been beyond the means of an ordinary Irish farmer.

His first school, where he went at the excessively early age of ten, was Stonyhurst the Jesuit establishment. He stayed only two years and. as usual, legends have collected. One is that, aged eleven, he was dissatisfied with the scientific education, decided that he could design a better one for himself, and accordingly departed. Another is more reliable, since it came directly from Bernal. At this stage, and until his first year at Cambridge, he was a passionate Irish nationalist and an even more passionate and fervent Catholic. Since the adoration of God was the first duty of a devout Catholic, he originated in his dormitory a Society of Perpetual Adoration. He was no doubt as eloquent and persuasive as he later showed himself, and thus wretched small boys were organized into watches. In relays there were two or three on their knees throughout each night. This must have presented a nice problem in situation ethics to sensible Jesuit priests.

After an interval in Ireland, Bernal was dispatched again to England to another public (public in the English sense, meaning private) school, Bedford. Bedford was a middle-of-the-road, middle-class, Protestant school; but it was competent and apparently met young Bernal’s requirements as to scientific tuition. He must have had to cope with some aggression from other boys, for English public schools at the time of the First World War weren’t gentle places and he already looked very odd-and, by the standards of his colleagues, actually was very odd. Still, Bernal was quite fearless and much stronger physically than anyone expected. So he survived: and his teachers probably recognized his ability from the start, which would have been hard not to do. Whatever the demerits of English education, talent normally is spotted very early. Bernal’s was evident from his teens on, and even his enemies and detractors (he acquired both) couldn’t doubt it. At eighteen he won a major open scholarship in mathematics to Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Presumably Bernal opted for Emmanuel on advice from his school. It wasn;t a lucky choice. In the seventeenth century Emmanuel had been one of the two great Puritan colleges, and had provided a high proportion of the first New England divines. By Bernal’s time it had become more commonplace, and wasn’t well adapted to deal with a remarkably nonconforming intellect that had some of the marks of genius. He entered the college as a believing Catholic but also as a believing Marxist. Since he couldn’t reconcile the two faiths, the Catholicism had to go, although some friends thought they detected the effects long afterward. Bernal was always a man of faith; and all he did — in science, in politics, in his campaigns for peace and the perfectibility of humankind (in Marxist terms) —was suffused by something indistinguishable in spirit from religious emotion. Some of the more intellectual colleges would have realized what they had been presented with, and would have clung on to him whatever the cost. Emmanuel didn’t, although forty years later it made the most handsome amend in its power by electing him to an honorary fellowship

As it happened, Bernal’s undergraduate record gave the college some excuse. His academic career was ludicrously checkered for someone who, only a few years afterwards, was to be described as the last man alive who knew and understood the whole of science. Part I of the mathematical tripos is an easy examination, and Bernal was a good natural mathematician, and well-trained. He ingeniously got a second class, which has never been explained. He then took part I of the natural sciences tripos in chemistry, mineralogy, geology. He was already committed to crystallography, and that was an appropriate combination. There he got a first class. He proceeded to part II, physics, and got another second class. Here, though, there is a creditable explanation. Bernal had become obsessively absorbed with crystallography (as he was to become obsessively absorbed in so many other projects later), and spent three-quarters of his time derivin the 230 space groups by means of Hamiltonian quaternions. This was an astonishing piece of work for an undergraduate— or, as far as that goes, for anyone else. It has never been published, on the grounds of the vast expense. It would have won him a fellowship at any of the great colleges—Trinity. St. John’s, King’s-which would have laughed off the consequent second class. It did win him a research post in W. H. Bragg’s laboratory at the Royal Institution, and the immediate and undeviating support of both the Braggs.

At the Royal Institution, Bernal began his career as a professional scientist. Within a very short time he was known to be, with the Braggs, the most profound crystallographer in England. Among his less obvious gifts he was a first-rate experimenter, and his analysis of the structure of graphite was a classical piece of distinctly laborious work. As a more characteristic exercise of pure intellect, he created a diagram for interpreting X-ray photographs, now known as the Bernal chart.

In 1927, when he was twenty-six, Bernal was recalled to Cambridge. Arthur Hutchinson, the professor of mineralogy, had persuaded the university to establish a department of crystallography and to advertise for an assistant director of research (which meant, in the odd Cambridge terminology, the man in charge). Bernal applied. Hutchinson used to tell the story of the interview. During the formal questions Bernal either answered in monosyllables or sat mule, looking sullen (he could be curiously inept on such occasions). Then Hutchinson, as chairman, asked him what he would do if he was put in charge of the department. Bernal threw back his splendid head, the marvelous eyes sparkled, and he talked for half an hour—talked like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whom he sometimes reminded one of, bewitching a good many men, even more women, and this hard-boiled academic interview board. After that, no more questions. Bernal was asked to withdraw, was called back in three minutes, and was given the job. From then on, Hutchinson said, being the most modest of men, that his only duty as Bernal’s nominal superior was to act as a combination of nurse and housemaid, cleaning up after him.

Cambridge from 1927 to 1937 was the most creative period of Bernal’s scientific life, in the specific sense of what he personally achieved. It was also the period when the personality of Bernal stamped itself on the English intellectual world, and soon on a world wider than that. At the Royal Institution in London he had already become something of a legend, on the fringe of what he called “low Bloomsbury” In many of his tastes he was, and remained, a child of the twenties. His writers were Donne and Joyce, he proclaimed, and though he went on reading widely, they continued to mean most to him. In inks of various colors he drew labyrinthine charts, one of his delights, to define the erotic combinations of the whole of Bloomsbury, and took a not undistinguished part in them himself. He married only once, and the marriage lasted till he died; but his amorous career bore a marked resemblance to that of H. G. Wells-who, incidentally, was very fond of him. As with Wells, nearly all of Bernal’s attachments were with women of character and high intelligence. What isn’t always true in such a life, none of those who loved him has in retrospect been known to say an unloving word.

In Cambridge, all that was pretty open. Bernal’s active Communism was quite open. That did him a little practical harm. Despite his reputation as one of the great scientists of the future, no college made him a fellow, although there were attempts to persuade them. That didn’t matter very much. The scientific community gave him justice all through his career. He was elected at thirty-six—unusually young-to the Royal Society; and conservative elder statesmen of science, thoroughly disapproving of his extramural activities, came to Christ’s College to celebrate the occasion, just to recognize that he was one of the new glories of English science. An attractive oddity, someone said fairly audibly.

It was at this time that he did his major pioneer work, which effectively started molecular biology. He began, with his pupils Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. Isidore Fartkuchen, and others, to take X-ray photographs of biologically important molecules, sterols, amino acids, proteins, nucleopro-teins (e.g. the tobacco mosaic virus). He was in no sort of doubt that in the geometry and physical structure of such molecules must lie some of the explanations of the origin of life, and the way the living process works—as became magnificently clear twenty years later, with the Watson-Crick revelation of the structure of DNA. Molecular biology, as developed by Crick and his generation, is one of the greatest of scientific triumphs. Bernal was the founding father. In the thirties, he already foresaw a great deal of the future.

Two questions require some sort of answer. One isn’t important; but even Alan Mackay, a colleague of Bernal’s in later years and the scientist who has written most penetratingly about him, has probably given too much weight to an oversimplification. This is that, right from the beginning of his scientific life, Bernal was dominated by one purpose and one theme, namely the search for the origin of life itself— “biopoesis”, to use his own term, Bernal certainly came to believe this. He was a man of cosmos-embracing mind, with great love for systems, who somehow never created a system himself. In the most brilliant part of his scientific career, and probably right up to the end, the origin of life was his major preoccupation. But it wasn’t always so, and one has to be cautious about a rationalization after the event. Some people must remember his conversation in his first years at the Cambridge department of crystallography —conversation, scientific and otherwise, of which no one versation, scientific and otherwise, of which no one who heard it ever expects to hear the like again. But the conversation between, say, 1928 and 1931 was not about the genesis of molecular biology, Bernal could turn his mind to almost any scientific topic, especially if there was a practical outcome, however remote. With quantum physics he was an interested spectator, but it didn’t grip him, and he played no part. On the other hand, he was passionately involved in the structure of metals and the prospect of making entirely new materials.

The second question is perhaps more significant. If he had been so utterly dedicated to molecular biology, it is hard to believe that Bernal wouldn’t, after the war, have polished off the structure of the nucleic acids. That couldn’t have been done in the thirties, for the techniques weren’t developed. In the late forties they were, and no man alive was so well equipped to solve the problem single-handed. But he hadn’t the single-mindedness. Other concerns, to him more imperative, had supervened. all through his life he had a curious lack of the artistic impulse to perfect a piece of work and sign his own name underneath. He started so many things, and stayed to finish only a few. Others could do the final work. He was part of a collective enterprise. In some depths of his temperament he was self-centered, but also he was the most unselfish of men. It was that combination, as rare as the somewhat similar one of Einstein’s, which made him different from most of the human species.

After rise of Nazism, Bernal’s most imperative concern became politics, and remained so until his death. He believed, with his religious intensity, that human intelligence and the goodwill of the people could, and would, produce a desirable life for human beings everywhere. In that respect he was a totally committed Marxist, and would cheerfully have died for his belief—and in fact, though not in battle, did so.

Bernal wasn’t innocent. He knew a lot about human frailty; but he couldn’t entertain the thought that men in power, even if they had arrived at power through impeccable Marxist channels, didn’t necessarily behave with the sweetness that he would have shown himself. It was on that matter that he and the present writer couldn’t remain in complete communication, though the friendship stayed intact. He couldn’t imagine that the Stalin purges weren’t precisely what they were officially said to be.

It is a mistake to think that he was absolutely uncritical. He was deeply torn about the Hungarian rising in 1956 and about Czechoslovakia in 1968. But with all the resources of one of the most subtle and labyrinthine minds of the twentieth century, he tried to elaborate at least a partial justification for Lysenko.

The war found Bernal at his happiest and best. True, he was in a position of some ethical delicacy during the months of the Nazi-Soviet pact. That was managed with characteristic ingenuity, however. He devoted himself to protecting the civilian population from bombing, which no one could object to. He was one of the most valuable of all wartime scientists. Bernal loved being set finite problems. This was science with a purpose—such as he had called for in his great testament and polemic The Social Function of Science (1939). This was how science ought to be used in peace. More than many scientists, he liked being instructed about what the job was and ordered to get it done.

He was also abnormally brave. About his entire wartime activities, a new wave of mythopoeia set in, Some were literally true. He really did dicker with an unexploded bomb at Liverpool Street Station–an unjustifiable risk that would have been stopped if there had been a responsible person around–and then ceremoniously declare: “Mr. Stationmaster, now you can announce that your station is open.”

It is worth remembering that no one in the English official world ever worried that he was an overt Communist. As he said later, for wartime purposes he was regarded as respectable. After the Germans invaded Russia, he threw all his energies into aggressive war. He became an adviser to Lord Louis Mountbatten on special operations, went to the Quebec Conference, helped plan the invasion of Europe.

About that last, some of the mythopoeia went wild. He applied both science and scholarship to working out the condition of the Norman beaches. No one else could have done it so well. But the story that he had gone across the Channel at night. weeks before the invasion, to inspect the beaches for himself, is nonsense. He was brave enough, perhaps foolhardy enough. But it would never have been permitted. No one could have risked his being captured. He knew far too much.

War over, he returned to the professorship of physics at Birkbeck College, London University, to which he had been appointed in 1937, succeeding his great contemporary P. M. S. Blackett. There he did fine work himself, notably on the structure of liquids, even when crippled by illness; and he inspired other fine work in a small but jovially worshipping department. Both at Cambridge and Birkbeck his relations with colleagues and pupils were singularly happy. He was utterly devoid of envy, and good work done by anyone gave him joy. His method of presiding over research, although it would have made a tidy-minded administrator blink (it wasn’t very close to his own theoretical model of planning), somehow worked. Nevertheless, he wasn’t often to be found in the laboratory. He was wearing himself out as a world figure.

The honors were flowing in, not as many as lesser men receive, but enough. The Royal Society in 1946 gave him one of their highest rewards, the Royal Medal. He was still involved in British governmental committees on building, a throwback to his early war work. That he could do in his spare time, but he had very little. He was absorbed, body and soul, in trying to prevent another war.

By this time (1946 onwards) he had become—what was already partially true in the late thirties—the most respected and loved of Western intellectual Communists. This was partly due to his scientific eminence, which was unassailable, and at least as much to his character. People accepted that he was not only a great man but a good one. It helped that he had no solemnity at all was remarkably amusing, and could charm birds off any kind of perch. So he was the first person in demand for the great Communist causes. Communists believed in the danger of another war. So did he. He threw himself into the campaign without a particle of reserve. He became chairman of the Presidential Committee of the World Council of Peace (Communist-organized), and that was only one of his duties.

This meant that he was in something like continuous motion, scurrying from Birkbeck, the most recent scientific paper being corrected in the car, to London Airport, off to one of the socialist capitals, Moscow, Warsaw, Bucharest, or Peking. This might have been endured by a man capable of more relaxation, but he had no idea of looking after himself. He was astonishingly careless of his own life, Bernal’s friends looked on with horror. Gentle and unassuming, he was also rock-obstinate to any advice. His friends guessed that, though his muscles were strong, he probably wasn’t organically tough. There were ominous clinical signs years before his first stroke.

He enjoyed the fuss and flurry of action. He had reveled in it during the war, and did so again. He positively enjoyed multinational committees. He was certain that it was all worthwhile; anything that made war even slightly less likely must be worthwhile. Friends such as Blackett, as experienced in military-political thinking as he was but much more skeptical, couldn’t accept that it was. For objective reasons, Blackett argued, major war was nost improbable. Fringe campaigns couldn’t affect the chances by .001 percent. Meanwhile, Bernal was throwing away years of his life.

He had his first stroke in 1963, in an aircraft returning from one of his missions. That didn’t stop him. He continued with his travels until he was finally immobilized by other strokes and a rare and terrible combination of pathologies. He fought against the spread of paralysis with a flawless stoical courage that was agonizing to see.

For some years before his death, Bernal had lost almost all muscular movement. He had been, more than most, an active, often restless man. He could scarcely speak audibly, even with amplifiers, except to those of his nearest connections who could catch his tone of voice. He had been the most brilliant talker of his time. His intellect was untouched almost to the end. He continued to think and work. It was the last thing left to him. He died, at the age of seventy, on 15 September 1971.


I. Original Works. Bernal’s writings include The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929); Bloomington, Ind., (1969): The Social Function of Science (1939); Cambridge, Mass., (1967); The Freedom of Necessity (1949); The Physical Basis of Life (1950); Science and Industry in the Nineteenth Century (1953; Bloomington, Ind., 1969); Science in History (1954; 2nd ed., 1957; 3rd ed., 1965; ill, ed., 1969); World Without War (1958; 2nd ed., 1961), also in abridged paperback form as Prospect of Peace (1960) that was translated into French as La paix, pourquoi Jaire (1965); Origin of Life (1967); and The Extension of Man—Physics Before the Quantum (1972).

Bernal’s writings on science and the social relations of science, together with notes and any other relevent material, were bequeathed to Birkbeck College and are in its main library. His correspondence, notes on committee work, and biographical material are at Cambridge University library.

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries include unsigned ones in Nature, 235 (28 Jan. 1972); Scientific World, 16 , no. 1 (1972); and the Times of London (16 Sept. 1971); Pierre Biquard, in La vie culturelle (17 Sept. 1971), 10; C. H. Carlisle, “J. D. Bernal—an Appreciation,” in Bulletin. Institute of Physics (London), 22 (1971), 685; J. G. Crowther, “John Desmond Bernal—an Appreciation,” in New Scientist (23 Sept. 1971), 666; Jack Legge, in Australian Left Review (May 1971), 31-33; Joseph Needham, “Desmond Bernal—a Personal Recollection,” in Cambridge Review (19 Nov. 1971), 33-35; Linus Pauling, “Bernal’s Contribution to Structural Chemistry,” in Scientific World, 16 , no. 2 (1972); and Alden Whitman, “A Natural Philosopher,” in New York Times (16 Sep. 1971), 46.

Also see Sir Lawrence Bragg, in Chemistry in Britain (4 Apr. 1970), 149; Maurice Goldsmith and Alan Mackay, eds., Science of Science (London, 1964), esp. C. P. Snow, “J. D. Bernal, a Personal Portrait,” 19-29; McGraw-Hill Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology (New York, 1972); “Profile of J. D. Bernal,” in New Scientist, 4 (1958), 164-165; and W. L. and C. K. Schultz, “John Desmond Bernal—Evangelist of Science,” in Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 21 , no. 2 (1970), 142-144.

C. P. Snow

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