Bernal, John Desmond

John Desmond Bernal (1901 - 1971)

John Desmond Bernal was born in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. He was the eldest of three boys. His father was a well-off farmer who sent his son to be educated in England, first at the Catholic public school, Stoneyhurst in Lancashire, then to Bedford, a middle-class Protestant school. He won a major scholarship to EmmanuelCollege, Cambridge when he was eighteen.

From this early age he exhibited the personality, which was to characterise his whole of his career, at times non-conformist, even maverick, but with a belief in the basic goodness of mankind. Throughout his career he showed that he was multi-minded rather than single-minded. Although, as he was later to demonstrate, a brilliant mathematician, he obtained only a second class in the Part I of the mathematics tripos; subsequently in the Part I of the natural science tripos (chemistry, mineralogy and geology) he obtained a First. In Part II in physics he again achieved only a second class.

After graduating in 1919 he obtained a research post in the Royal Institution in London working under Laurence and William Bragg, where he worked on the structure of graphite. At the same time he drew up a diagram for interpreting X-ray photographs, which came close to anticipating the better known Patterson map, derived from a Fourier analysis of X-ray diffraction waves.

In the decade from 1927 Bernal, then at Cambridge, carried out his major pioneer work, attempting to establish the structures of complex biological molecules, such as the tobacco mosaic virus and other proteins. In this respect he may be regarded as the founding father of molecular biology. Much of this work was carried out with his research students, Dorothy Crowfoot, later Hodgkin, Isidore Fankuchen, and Max Perutz.

Bernal believed that science should and did serve society. In one of his more important writings published in 1939 The Social Function of Science he suggested that science should be geared to the material needs of society. A committed Marxist, he naively believed that Stalin?s regime was to the benefit of all the peoples in the Soviet sphere of influence. During World War II he became special advisor to Lord Louis Mountbatten on special operations and one of the best brains tackling wartime problems and helping to plan the invasion of Europe, which took place on June 6, 1944.

He returned to his Chair of Physics at BirkbeckCollege and worked on the structure of liquids. The Royal Society, which had elected him a Fellow at the age of 35, awarded him its Royal Medal in 1946. For the next 20 years he played the role of a senior statesman of science, travelling the world spreading scientific as well as social ideas. Following a number of strokes, his first on an aircraft returning from one of these many journeys, he died in September 1971.

Further Reading: Andrew Brown J. D. Bernal The Sage of ScienceOxfordUniversity Press (Oxford 2005); C. C. Gillespie The Dictionary of Scientific Biography Vol. I pp. 16-20 (1970)

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