John Desmond Bernal was born in Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland, on 10th May 1901. In early life, his family called him `Desmond’ but, throughout his adult life he was widely referred to, publicly, as J D Bernal; privately he was supposed to be `John’; though most of his close contemporaries called him “Sage”, a nick-name considered to sum up Bernal’s extraordinary qualities! Educated by Jesuits, as a schoolboy he was a fervent supporter of the Easter Rising. He was educated at Bedford School, Stonyhurst College, Lancashire and Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
Whilst his father’s family was Irish Catholic family, they had formerly been Spanish shepherdic Jews, and his mother was an American. John was also highly precocious. At the age of ten Desmond left Ireland for England to join a school. At an early age, Bernal showed a precocious talent for science, devising his own laboratory tests. He was also precociously radical, supporting the 1916 Rising and, during the Irish war of independence, rowing within his family over his support for those who burnt down neighbouring landlords’ estates in reprisals for supporting the British.
But it was at Cambridge that Bernal established his future intellectual course. On 7th November 1919, he heard at a meeting about the October revolution in Russia. Having discovered Marxism, his family sent a priest to bring Bernal back to the fold. Bernal and he agued at length – seemingly, it was the priest who eventually renounced the church! After moving to London in the 1920s to work at the scientific Royal Institution, Bernal attended the 1917 Club.
John Bernal studied both mathematics and science for a BA degree in 1922, 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 later work on crystal structure. After graduating he started research under Sir William Bragg at the Davy-Faraday Laboratory in London. In 1924 he determined the structure of graphite.
In 1922, Bernal married Agnes Eileen Sprague, always called Eileen) and they would go on to have two children together. As radical thinkers, they were both committed to an open marriage. (Bernal would also have a child in 1953) with Margot Heinemann, an active Communist (see separate entry). In 1923 both Bernal and Eileen joined the Communist Party and both were highly active, especially during the General Strike of 1926. J D also wrote anonymous articles for the theoretical journal, Communist Review. (See right below for a sketch of Bernal by Kapp – see separate entry)
Bernal was widely described as a dazzling talker and visionary thinker. In 1929, Bernal proposed what became known as the `Bernal sphere’, a type of space habitat intended as a long-term home for permanent residents. Perhaps not immediately a project that could be taken up at that time – though most of his scientific work was highly practical and earned him a massively high degree of respect from his peers.
At university, Bernal had displeased the scientist Rutherford by not taking up nuclear physics but by choosing crystallography as his area of research. But Bernal ended up taking biology as his main field of his work, perhaps seeing the social dimension as an added interest but also because he felt that biology needed assistance from physics and chemistry. The consequence was a stunning array of achievements, with not a few aspects of science ending up being named after him – the ultimate accolade.
The Bernal tables helped early crystallographers to calculate the structures of crystals, and he carried out pioneering works on sex hormones and proteins. He was first to work out the structure of graphite and was a pioneer in the physics of composites – the Bernal hard sphere model was the first such approach in the analysis of the liquid state of water.
It was his role as a catalyst for others, in seeing the interconnections between aspects of scientific disciplines that was at the root of many of these achievements. The biologists Dorothy Hodgkin said that Bernal should have shared her Nobel Prize. Other prize winners have noted their debt to their association with Bernal, involving work on the structures of haemoglobin, myoglobin, and electron microscopy of viruses.
A fictional sketch of him was drawn by C P Snow in his novel `The Search’, in which a Bernal-like figure is portrayed as bearing astonishing intelligence. It is likely that he was the model for the arch-typical `British boffin’, which popular culture saw displayed repeatedly over the next generation.
But this boffin was like no other; a true anecdote about him reveals quite what an extraordinary person he was. One night, a group of thoroughly right-wing students decided to teach Bernal a lesson by beating him up – but they were forced to run away, though they outnumbered him. It was not by an amazing exercise of physical energy that Bernal won his single-handed victory but this arose from his rapid and innovative brain power. The assailants had all entered Bernal’s room smoking cigarettes. Faced with this, he simply turned off the light, immediately placing the room in darkness. Bernal had to simply land a punch near where he thought each face was!
In July 1931, Bernal – along with the cream of British science – attended a special session of the 2nd International Congress of the History of Science and Technology at the Science Museum in South Kensington, which had been arranged to allow Soviet scientific delegation to present their take on history and philosophy of science.
The quality and novelty of the ideas conveyed by the Soviets literally stunned the audience, enabling a Cambridge student of mathematics – David Guest (see separate entry) – to speak drawing supportive parallels. `Science at the Crossroads’, a book based on the Soviet interventions at the Congress, was published. The event sparked the development of a whole layer of extremely talented British scientists, committed to a Marxist approach that was only expunged by the sudden shift to Cold War from 1947.
The next step was that John Haldane (see separate entry) and Bernal joined a large group of other British scientists on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1931. While there they met with Nickolai Bukharin, amongst others.
Bernal officially and formally allowed his Communist Party membership to lapse in 1933, possibly since his scientific work was now becoming highly sensitive. At any rate for the next quarter of a century at least Bernal was publicly still strongly identified with the Party. It is virtually certain that Bernal accepted a proposal from Harry Pollitt that the scientist’s role in developing a broader movement of progressive intellectuals outside of the Party was his Party work. Although Bernal did not work inside a formal Party branch, or within its structure, it is clear that his work was directed by Party centre; it is possible that someone like Pollitt held Bernal’s card for him, not a wholly unusual thing to happen in cases where some discretion was required. But Bernal, whether he actually had a Party card or not, was not simply a fellow traveler; he considered himself a Communist in every sense of the word.
Bernal’s work was central to the development of crystallography and he was a founder of molecular biology. He eventually became professor of physics at Cambridge University and from 1932-6 worked on the development of X-ray crystallography with Dorothy Hodgkin.
In 1937 Bernal became professor of crystallography at Birkbeck College, London, which led to becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1939, he published probably the earliest text on the sociology of science, “The Social Function of Science”, and went on to write many articles, pamphlets and books on the connection between Marxism and science.
His 1939 book analysed the liberating effect of the socialism on science, contrasting this with the way the capitalist system was a hindrance to science. Interestingly, in commenting on the state of science in colonial India, Bernal also saw that it was the struggle for independence that would free science there. Much of the work considers science in Nazi Germany, with the conclusion (not so obviously such an obvious thing at the time) that a World War was imminent.
Bernal’s philosophy of science was in the tradition of Engels and he was a true devotee of the work of Marx’s collaborator. To Bernal, if science was the starting point for philosophy, then Marxism emerged out of this. It would have been his and others strong urging that saw Rajani Palme Dutt state, in his report to the 16th National Congress of the Party in 1943, that: “The Communist Party stands with modern science.”
During the Second World War, Bernal was scientific adviser to Lord Mountbatten – effectively Britain’s chief `boffin’. He carried out several research projects for the government, including working with Solly Zuckerman on the impact of bombing on people and buildings. This involved conducting practical experiments on abandoned bomb shelters in the countryside using animals – later Bernal and Zuckerman acted as their own “guinea pigs”!
Bernal devised aerial photography methods to photograph the shapes of waves on the Normandy beaches under different conditions of wind. From the patterns of these waves he devised methods to determine the inclinations of the beaches to see how they might withstand the landing of tanks and armoured vehicles.
In the 1930s, Bernal watched the conditions at Moscow airport and this had lead to his discoveries on the complexities of the phases of water. It now came to him that, if icebergs were packed with jute fibres, they could become strong enough to allow the landing of planes. This pioneering work on composites did not see any plans to consider Arctic landing, because Normandy eventually beckoned. Thus, one of Bernal’s few claims to fame is his having been the joint inventor of Mulberry Harbour, the artificial docks that were vital to the D-Day landings. Bernal himself landed on Normandy the day after D-Day.
In August 1943 he attended the Quebec Conference and helped to select the landing beachers for the D-Day invasion of France. In 1947 Bernal was awarded the US Medal of Freedom. However, his left-wing views made him an unwanted guest during McCarthyism and the US government refused to let him have an American visa.
From the early war years, Bernal was an early supporter of the re-founded Association of Scientific Workers (AScW), which later amalgamated to form ASTMS (later part of MSF, today part of Unite).
Bernal was much associated with the peace movement, from his early support of the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group to becoming vice-president of the World Peace Committee. In 1951, he founded Scientists for Peace, which could arguably be termed the forerunner of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1953. After world war two, Bernal travelled frequently across the world, including to Russia, China, Cuba and Eastern Europe.
Bernal was committed to the science of genetics, even to the extent of conducting experiments aimed at the molecular structure of the gene. He was aware of the clash between leading Soviet biologists Vavilov and Lysenko but saw the matter as in emphasis rather than a revival of the controversy over inherited characteristics, and maintained discretion over the issue. That it was important to Soviet biology arose from its agricultural policies. Lysenko, who won out in the controversy, rejected early genetics. In the later phases of Stalin’s leadership, the doctrine of environmentally acquired inheritance was ruthlessly endorsed but was later accepted as erroneous.
Along with Rosalind Franklin, Bernal carried out research into the tobacco mosaic virus during the 1950s.
After 1968, when Professor Bernal retired from Birkbeck, his old College has maintained an annual lecture in his memory, still going strong. These J D Bernal lectures, which tend to focus on aspects of science that have social consequences.
John Bernal died on 15th September 1971.
A biography of Bernal, entitled “Sage” by Maurice Goldsmith was published by Hutchinson in 1980; others have followed. The tenor of some work on Bernal is indicated by one biographer who crudely equates his Marxism with religion.
Published work by J D Bernal:
• The World, the Flesh and the Devil:
An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (1929)
• Engels and Science (1935?)
• Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science (1937)
• The Social Function of Science (1939)
• Marx and Science (1952)
• Science in History (1954)
• The Origin of Life (1967)