Review of Andrew Brown, J. D. Bernal: The Sage of Science, Oxford University Press

John Desmond (“J.D.”) Bernal was one of the great scientists of the 20th century, pioneering the use of X-rays to solve the structure of proteins. His intellectual power embraced not only a wide range of the sciences – physics, biology, chemistry and mathematics – but also the history of science, the social function of science, and the arts. He was a friend of Picasso and the British sculptor Barbara Hepworth.  He was an active member of the Communist Party. Bernal travelled the world and received many international honours. He lived life to the full.

When Rosalind Franklin, the distinguished X-ray crystallographer whose diffraction pictures of DNA helped to establish its double-helix structure, quit prestigious King’s College, London, to work under Bernal at the smaller and more modest Birkbeck College in 1953, she wrote to a friend:

“Whatever one may have against the man, [Bernal’s] brilliant, and I should think an inspiring person to work under. And Birkbeck is, I suppose, more alive than other London colleges. It has only part-time evening students and consequently they really want to learn and to work. And they seem to collect a large proportion of foreigners on the staff, which is a good sign.”

But before she had fully settled in, Franklin had reservations:

“For myself, Birkbeck is an improvement on King’s, as it couldn’t fail to be. But the disadvantages of Bernal’s group are obvious – a lot of narrow-mindedness, and obstruction directed especially at those who are not [Communist] Party members. It’s been very slow starting up here, but I still think it might work out all right in the end.”

And it did work out well until her life was cut short by ovarian cancer five years later. Bernal’s Marxist views failed to impress her but she was very happy to take over his X-ray work on the structure of viruses. In an obituary in Nature Bernal praised the beauty of her X-ray work and her ability to inspire those who worked with her, a tribute she would not have received from anyone at King’s.

In 1953 the physics department at Birkbeck was strong in X-rays and crystallography, led by Bernal who had already achieved international fame; in fluctuation theory (Dr R Furth); electron physics (Dr Ehrenburg) and cosmic rays (Dr P T Trent). Furth and Ehrenburg, from the universities of Prague and Heidelburg respectively, were two of the ‘foreigners’ on the staff, described by Franklin as ‘a good sign’.  I was one of the evening students who ‘really want to learn and to work’.    The department was effectively divided into two: X-ray crystallographic research in two old buildings in Torrington Square and the rest of physics and most of the teaching in the new Main building in Mallet Street, both in Bloomsbury, and both under the supervision of Professor Bernal.  As a student I was not aware of any ‘obstruction directed especially at those who are not Communist Party members’ encountered by Franklin but I do remember two members of staff discussing the appointment of a new lecturer as they walked past me; ‘He would not have got the job’, one said, ‘if he had not been a member of the Party.’ It did not surprise me that there were communists among the staff. A student body such as ours – persons engaged in earning their livelihood and being taught in the evenings – was likely to attract teachers of a radical disposition.

If I have one small criticism of Andrew Brown’s excellent biography of Bernal it is that in dealing with Bernal’s 30 years’ association with Birkbeck, he concentrates on X-ray crystallographic research and plays down his essential role in turning part-time students into graduates. This criticism could be dismissed as parochial; after all it was for his research work and his extra-curricular activities that Bernal became famous and Brown enlightens these aspects of his life with great clarity and skill. But Bernal’s affection for Birkbeck College and its ideals are also important. On his retirement from the college after 30years the Clerk wrote to him, on behalf of the Governors, “It is an affection to an institute of flesh and blood, primarily, I am sure you would say, of students, and it is on behalf of their thousands that I should like to pay you special tribute”.

(John) Desmond Bernal was born on 10 May 1901 in Ireland, the eldest child of a Catholic Irish farmer, Samuel Bernal, and an American mother of Protestant Irish descent, Elizabeth (Bessie) Miller, who was born and brought up in San Francisco. Bessie was received into the Catholic Church shortly before her marriage. Samuel had run away to Australia when young and remained there for fourteen years, returning to Ireland only after his father’s death. He managed his sister’s estate for a while and then, thanks to the dowry Bessie brought with her, bought and restored a dilapidated farmhouse near Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. ‘He had no liking for reading and writing,’ Desmond later recalled, ‘but he was a great talker and a delight to walk with over the fields…A broad powerful man, very lovable.’ Bessie, by contrast, had attended lectures at the newly-founded Stanford University and at the Sorbonne in Paris. ‘Through her,’ Desmond wrote, ‘I realised the outside world of beauty in form and language.’

Desmond and his brother Kevin, two years younger, attended the local school until Desmond was ten years old when they were sent away to a Catholic preparatory school in England. This was Samuel’s idea, to broaden their horizons, but it was opposed by Bessie who saw that the boys were happy on the farm, but to no avail.  Desmond settled in well and embraced the school’s Catholic religiosity, but when, two years later, he moved on to the Jesuit College of Stonyhurst he hated it and left after just one term. ‘I learned nothing but the joys of prison life,’ he wrote afterwards. His mother was sympathetic, and nervous that he might be heading for the priesthood (it was a joke at Birkbeck forty years later, when Bernal was totally immersed in physics and politics, that ‘Bernal trained to be a Jesuit priest and that is what he has become.’) The following term he and Kevin were moved to Bedford school, in the English midlands, which was strong in science. Their time at Bedford coincided with the First World War which made travel between Ireland and England difficult, but Desmond threw himself into his studies and his passion for science intensified as his knowledge increased. He took the Cambridge University examinations and won a scholarship to study at Emmanuel College. At this time his father was gravely ill and Desmond became involved in the farm until his father died. The family wanted him to stay but Desmond was convinced that the farm could run without him, and put his scientific ambitions first.

At Cambridge he took mathematics in the first year and then switched to Natural Sciences gaining a first in the Part I examinations in 1922 and a second in the Part II examinations a year later. But most of his friends at Cambridge were not scientists but people interested in socialism to which Bernal had been drawn in his first year while attending a public lecture on socialism by H D Dickenson. Bernal thought it ‘a most wonderful thing’ His faith in Catholicism faded away.  One of the women in this group of friends dubbed Bernal ‘Sage’ because of his wide knowledge, a nickname which stuck. Another was Eileen Sprague, whom Desmond Bernal married in his third year, after the final exams. Both advocated free love and pledged that each other would still be free to take other partners, a vow which both upheld during a marriage that lasted a lifetime, and produced two sons. Bernal had countless lovers in the years to come; a son by Margaret Gardiner, who moved in artistic circles, and a daughter by the Marxist, Margot Heinemann. Andrew Brown tells an amusing story of how Anita Rimel, Bernal’s secretary at Birkbeck many years later, formed a Society of ‘Women who have never been to bed with Sage’ with herself as treasurer and Dina Frankurchen as president. In 1949 Bernal went on a trip to New York and took Anita with him. ‘It may have been about this time,’ Brown writes, ‘that Anita wrote to Dina saying you are now both president and treasurer of the Society.’

During his last year at the university Bernal worked privately on a study of crystallography and produced a dissertation which impressed Arthur Hutchinson, a lecturer in Mineralogy. He recommended Bernal to Sir William Bragg who was on the point of moving from University College to the Royal Institution in London taking with him his group of young researchers on X-ray crystallography. Bragg was interested, but had no funds. Emmanuel College came to the rescue with a small grant and Bernal began work in London on the structure of graphite. He produced a long paper describing the theory of the phenomena of X-ray diffraction and the best way to treat in practice crystals of different types of symmetry and complexity. It was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1926. He also designed a versatile instrument on which diffraction spectra could be recorded which was commercially produced and widely used. He was awarded a lectureship in structural crystallography in Professor Hutchinson’s small department of Mineralogy at Cambridge and he and Eileen moved back there in 1927. They had enjoyed their time in London living in Bloomsbury among young writers and artists, joining the Communist Party in 1923 and helping the strikers in the general strike in 1926.

Back at Cambridge Bernal spend the first six months setting up the laboratory with the aid of a young technician. His teaching load was light and at the end of the year he visited 14 schools of crystallography in Europe taking particular note of the work being done on natural fibres, starches and proteins. This experience gave Bernal an unrivalled grasp of X-ray crystallography. He formed the opinion that, despite a bewildering variety of protein structures, many could be crystallised and studied by X-ray diffraction and even a partial analysis would revolutionise the understanding of the nature of life.

Bernal’s research unit was soon blossoming. His first PhD students were Helen Megaw and Nora Wooster who had both studied mineralogy at Cambridge and were working on inorganic crystals. They were joined by Dorothy Crowford (later Hodgkinson), who had studied X-ray crystallography in her fourth year as an undergraduate at Cambridge, and returned specifically to work with Bernal. Still preoccupied with the structure of proteins Bernal was delighted to be given some crystals of pepsin. He and Crowford produced convincing X-ray photographs revealing a distinct molecular structure. They were the first X-ray photographs ever taken of a soluble protein.

When Dorothy left after completing her post graduate studies, she was replaced by Isidore Fankuchen, a graduate from Cornell, who soon became involved in proteins – but proteins of a special kind, viruses, specifically the tobacco mosaic virus. Max Perutz joined the unit from Vienna and decided to study haemoglobin a structure so complicated that it took him 15 years to crack it, by which time Bernal had long left for Birkbeck. In 1962 Perutz was awarded the Nobel Prize and wrote to Bernal say that it was really Bernal’s visits to the lab which gave him fresh enthusiasm and the determination to keep going. Dorothy Hodgkinson received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 insisting that Bernal should have shared it with her.

In 1938, Bernal moved to London to take up the Chair of Physics at Birkbeck, succeeding Patrick Blackett, who had turned the physics department into one of the best in the country. At the same time Lawrence Bragg was elected as the new Cavendish Professor at Cambridge.  He took his team of crystallographers with him. Fankuchen went with Bernal to Birkbeck; Perutz remained at Cambridge with Bragg. Birkbeck in 1938 was housed in Breams Buildings – a large dilapidated Victorian structure just off Chancery Lane. Plans for the new building in Bloomsbury were interrupted by the war and Breams was still in use in 1950 despite being badly damaged by bombs. (I remember it as a dangerous place in which to work, the top floor hanging precariously above the others.) Despite the distraction of moving Bernal found time to write a book exploring the role of science in contemporary society which was published as The Social Function of Science, in 1939. Lively, original and provocative, its main theme was the central planning of science to meet the needs of society, welcome to some of his contemporaries, anathema to others. Michael Polanyi, in particular accused Bernal of succumbing to Marxist propaganda, which could only result in the ‘merciless oppression of intellectual liberty’. Andrew Brown makes the point that central control seems at odds with developments in Bernal’s own field which were being achieved by determined individuals or very small groups.

At the beginning of the war Bernal was called away from Birkbeck to join the Civil Defence Research Committee as advisor on the physics of explosions. Some of the physics research at Birkbeck was transferred elsewhere and a rump of teaching staff remained to teach students at weekends. Bernal’s contact with Birkbeck during the war was minimal.

In 1942 Bernal, and another ‘first-rate scientist’, Solly Zuckerman, were appointed Scientific Advisors to Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations at the latter’s request. Bernal became heavily involved, as Mountbatten’s trouble shooter, in testing the validity of several ‘wild’ military ideas thrown up by Mountbatten’s think tanks; in the detailed planning for the Normandy beach landings, and the feasibility of an artificial harbour at Arromanche. Bernal’s wartime dress was a shapeless duffel coat, but occasionally he was required to wear ill-fitting uniform. ‘If he had had to submit himself to a services’ selection board’, Ritchie Calder wrote, ‘he would have rated the category ‘definitely not officer material’’.  Mountbatten, however put Bernal’s ‘brilliant mind’ above appearance (although he did arrange for Bernal to have his hair cut before introducing him to the Chiefs of Staff at the Anglo-American Quebec Conference in August 1943) and later expressed an unbounded admiration for Bernal’s contribution to the winning of the war.

At the end of the war Bernal’s stock was high. He was recognised as one of the founding fathers of operational research, and his pre-war work on the structure of proteins was recognised by the award of the Royal Medal by the Royal Society. But he had been away from X-ray crystallography for six years and Birkbeck’s research workers were scattered around the country. He proposed the establishment of a Biomolecular Centre at the college, combining computing, X-ray crystallography and protein chemistry, but there was no laboratory space in the bomb-damaged Breams Buildings. The Royal Institute provided temporary accommodation and the Nuffield Foundation gave financial backing. In 1947 London University granted the use of old buildings at 21-22 Torrington Square and the Biomolecular Centre moved in.  The rest of the physics department – and evening-class teaching – had to make do in Breams Buildings pending the completion of the new college building. Bernal saw the biomolecular centre as a prototype for similar centres elsewhere with a centrally planned programme of work. Such centres did indeed materialise, notably one in Cambridge with large purpose-built laboratories, but not the central planning. By 1965, even Bernal had come to realise that it might be best to recruit bright young people and let them follow their own interests, which was indeed the way his own department had always worked. He was once asked if he ran his lab on communist lines. He said he had never advanced beyond feudalism, his workers ploughing the lord’s land half the time and their own land for the other half.

With the establishment of the centre behind him, and Franklin’s group at the leading edge of biomolecular research, Bernal carried out virtually no original research himself in the early 1950s. He began writing an encyclopaedic Science in History which examined the development of science and its role in society from the Stone Age to the present. This began as a series of lectures in 1948 at Ruskin College Oxford, which was followed up some two years later by a course of ten lectures to us undergraduates at Birkbeck. I can see him now, with his large head, shock of unruly hair, shoulders stooped, entering the classroom carrying armfuls of books with numerous page markers, and regaling us with stories from the fifteen hundred year dominance of science by China to his own participation in Operational Analysis, dealing only with the history of science not its role in society. He was brilliant.

The book was published in 1954 and grew from one volume then, to four volumes for the fourth edition in 1968. Bernal was consumed by the task but he thought it as important as any experimental research going on at Birkbeck. The scope of the work was wide and immensely influential at the time. But his optimistic hope in the first edition that, as Andrew Brown describes it, science might divorce itself from worn-out capitalism and find a happier second marriage to socialism, was dimmed in later editions. Khrushchev had denounced Stalin and the US was gaining control of the second Industrial Revolution in electronics and automation.

Throughout this period Bernal’s programme of international activity intensified. In 1948 he defended the position of T D Lysenko, the notorious head of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences who had taken control of biological science in the USSR, and who, with the backing of Stalin, removed from their posts thousands of orthodox biologists and closed down several institutions that were not conforming to ‘proletarian science’. In 1949 at a peace conference in Moscow, Bernal praised the Soviet people for saving science and securing its future for mankind, in contrast with those in capitalist countries whose aim was to direct science to the production of weapons that could bring no happiness but only destruction. His speech was picked up by the British newspapers, leading the Nobel Laureate, Sir Edward Appleton to say in public, “There are two Professor Bernals: one is the brilliant natural philosopher of world-wide renown, the other a fervid convert to an extreme political theory”.

Bernal was a frequent visitor to the USSR. He was on the committee for the annual awards of the Stalin peace prize the first of which went to Joliot-Curie in 1951. Bernal was one of ten winners in 1953 (the year in which the Soviet exploded its first H-bomb) and had his photograph on the front page of Pravda. He collected the prize in September 1954, by which time Stalin was dead and Khrushchev was effectively in control of the USSR. Bernal requested an interview with Khrushchev which was immediately granted. It was one of the first direct contacts between a Westerner and the new Soviet leader and a summary of the interview was published in the The Times and the New York Times.

From there he went on to China to join the celebration of the fifth anniversary of the People’s Republic. He stayed in Peking for a month, so engrossed that he never protested at the burden of lectures thrust upon him, producing a new lecture every day on subjects ranging from the origin of life to recent advances in the understanding of the role of hydrogen in inorganic and organic substances. He toured other Chinese cities before flying, at Nehru’s request, to India for more of the same. When he returned to Britain he had been away for three months. But he was soon on the move again – to Hungary, back to China, then to newly independent Ghana to advise on reforming its university system, and his ‘last great adventure’ at the age of sixty to South America in 1962. From then on his physical health deteriorated. He paid a brief, relaxing, visit to the eastern United States in 1963 but suffered a stroke on the return flight home. His mind remained clear and he still took an interest in world affairs, but he needed constant care. His wayward habits with women now came to his aid, his various ‘wives’ sharing the burden.

Desmond Bernal died on 15 September 1971. At a memorial service, friends and admirers including C P Snow, J C Kendrew, Solly Zuckerman and P M S Blackett paid tribute to his genius: three lords, two Nobel laureates, two Orders of Merit. ‘It was characteristic of Bernal’s career,’ wrote Eric Hobsbawn, ‘that men and women, who were never tired of expressing their admiration for his remarkable gifts, and of acknowledging their profound debts to him, gained more public and scientific honours than he.’


1. Anne Sayre, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, New York, 1975, p. 138.

2.  Ibid, p.174.

3. Nature 182 (1958): p. 154.

4. John Desmond Bernal. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 26. (Nov., 1980), pp. 16-84.

5.  Richie Calder, Bernal at War, J D Bernal: A life in Science and Politics, Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian [eds], 1999, p 160.

6. Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Memories of Desmond Bernal, J D Bernal: A life in Science and Politics, p 195.

7 Eric Hobsbawn, Bernal at Birkbeck, J D Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics, pp 252-3.


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