The story opens in 1936 when I left my hometown, Vienna, for Cambridge,
England, to seek the Great Sage. He was an Irish Catholic converted
to Communism, a mineralogist who had turned to X-ray crystallography:
J.D. Bernal. I asked the Great Sage : "How can I solve the
secret of life". He replied : "The secret of life lies
in the structure of proteins, and there is only one way of solving
it and that is by crys tallography." We called him the sage
because he knew everything from history to physics. His conversation
was the most fascinating of anyone I have ever come across. Actually
what had attracted me to Cambridge were the lectures of a young
organic chemist in Vienna who told us students of the work being
done in the laboratory headed by Frederick Gowland Hopkins,one of
the founders of biochemistry. (Max Ferdinand Perutz), the Nobel
Bernal was a committed Marxist and a member of the British Communist
Party. Bernal's interest and involvement in social and political
issues began about the same time he initiated his scientific studies
at Cambridge. He was the most respected and loved of Western intellectual
communists. Today Bernal's views as a hardcore communist may not
be appealing, if not, totally irrelevant. The world has drastically
changed since Bernal's time. But then Bernal's political activity
was just one aspect of his fascinating personality. Above all Bernal
was a great teacher who could influence and inspire a large number
of students, who later made pioneering contributions in their respective
fields. Bernal was an original thinker. He was a visionary scientist.
In fact, Bernal was one of the most influential scientists of his
By all accounts John Desmond Bernal was a dazzling
thinker and talker. His contemporaries called him "Sage"
as he was considered to be uncommonly wise. He had been the most
brilliant thinker of his time. It was his encyclopaedic knowledge,
his breath of vision, and his conscientious activism that most singled
him out rather than his scientific contributions. Charles Percy
Snow (1905-80), the English novelist and physicist, thought that
Bernal was "perhaps the last of whom it could be said, with
meaning, that he knew science'. Julian Huxley (1887-1975), the English
biologist and writer, thought Bernal to be the wisest man in Britain.
Joseph Needham described him as one of the best minds of their generation.
Bernal was born on 10 May 1901 in Nengh, County
Tipperary, Ireland. About his family background, C.P. Snow wrote:
"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 mythopoetic 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".
At the age of 10 he was sent to boarding school,
Stonyhurst, a Jesuit establishment, in England. He stayed there
for two years before coming back to Ireland. It is said that the
reason for leaving the school was that he was dissatisfied with
the scientific education there. But after an interval, Bernal was
sent again to England, to another public school, Bedford. At eighteen
Bernal won a major open scholarship in mathematics to Emmanuel College,
Cambridge. After getting a second class in Part I of the Mathematical
Tripos, Bernal took Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos in chemistry,
mineralogy and geology in which he got a first class. Then he proceeded
to Part II physics and got another second class. He became obsessively
absorbed with crystallography and undertook an elaborate painstaking
research problem in this field. He derived 230 space groups by means
of Hamiltonian quaternions, an astonishing piece of work for an
This work enabled him to get a research post at
the Royal Institution in London in 1923. He was to work with William
Henry Bragg (1862-1942), who alongwith his son William Lawrence
Bragg (1890-1971), developed X-ray analysis of the atomic arrangement
in crystalline structure. Within a short period, after joining the
Royal Institution, Bernal established himself as one of the most
accomplished crystallographers in England. At the instance of Bragg
he started to work on the structure of graphite. His analysis of
the structure of graphite was a classic piece of distinctly laborious
work. He also created a diagram for interpreting X-ray photographs
which is now called "Bernal Chart". In 1927 he came back
to Cambridge to join the newly established department of crystallography.
It was Arthur Hutchinson, the professor of Mineralogy, who persuaded
the university to establish a department of crystallography and
advertise for an Assistant Director of Research. The period from
1927 to 1937 in Cambridge was the most creative period of Bernal's
scientific life. At Cambridge he worked on the structure of vitamin
B I (1933), pepsin (1934), vitamin D 2 (1935), the sterols (1936)
and the tobacco mosaic virus (1937).
In 1937 he was appointed as professor of physics
at Birkbeck College of the London University. He succeeded his great
contemporary Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett (1897-1974), who built
an improved cloud chamber used to photograph tracks of a nuclear
disintegration and cosmic ray shawer discovered the positron and
got Nobel Prize in physics in 1908. Here Bernal made notable contribution
on the structure of liquids and inspired others to do important
The Bimolecular Research Laboratory, the brain-child of Bernal was
opened by Sir Lawrence Bragg on 1 July 1948. In the words of Bernal
: "The setting up of the Birkback College Biomolecular Research
Laboratory was made possible by the generous gift of the Nuffields
Foundation which enabled the college to equip and man the two houses
in which the present research center is lodged. The old research
laboratory of the physics department where work along these lines
was carried out on a small scale before the war had been destroyed
by enemy action and would in any case have been much too small for
the scale of work at present in hand". The three objectives
of the laboratory were :
1. "To work on the structure of proteins".
2. "To develop the necessary electronic and computing skills
needed for the faster and better analysis of these proteins".
3. "To understand the fundamental nature of the constituent
active materials in cements and the nature of their reaction with
The establishment of this laboratory is the testimony
of Bernal's great vision. In those days when there were no proper
hardware and computer it was extremely difficult to determine a
precision structure. It took a team of 2 or 3 people 3 years to
determine a precision structure. With the development of computer
the same could be achieved in less than 0.1 second on a Intel based
P2 running at 400 MH2.
Bernal used to live in a flat on the top floor
of the laboratory to avoid wasting of time in commuting. Moreover,
staying there he could check up easily on the activities of his
students in their offices on the lower floors. Besides scientists,
many eminent peace campaigners were entertained in his flat above
the laboratory including Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who painted
a mural on the wall of the flat. The mural, the only one ever executed
by Picasso in England, was saved from demolition.
Pablo Picasso's drawing on the wall of
Bernal was one of the principal creators of molecular
biology. Bernal was the founder of protein crystallography. Indeed,
the field of molecular biology was sterile until Bernal's observation
that protein crystals could be studied only in the wet state. Bernal
was the first crystallographer to obtain clear images of X-ray diffraction
by protein in 1934. To avoid dehydration during the experiment,
Bernal had placed the protein crystals in a capillary tube that
was closed at both ends. While the images obtained by Bernal did
not lead to a three-dimensional description of protein structure,
but these images were clear enough to confirm the macromolecular
nature of proteins. Thus Bernal demonstrated the possibility of
resolving the three dimensional structure of proteins. Among his
students were Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910- 94), who determined
the structure of the vitamin B12 molecule through X-ray crystallographic
analysis and got Nobel Prize in 1963; Rosalind Franklin (1920-58),
who played a major part in the discovery of the structure of DNA
by J.D. Watson and Francis Crick; Aaron Klug (1926- ), who developed
crystallographic electron complexes and got Nobel Prize in 1982;
and Max Perutz, who worked on the structure of haemoglobin and got
Nobel Prize in 1962.
Bernal's role in establishing the field of protein
crystallography will be obvious from the following remarks of Perutz
: "In 1934 J.D. Bernal and Dorothy Crowfoot (now Hodgkin) at
the Crystallographic Laboratory in Cambridge, England, placed a
crystal of pepsin in an X-ray beam to see if it gave a diffraction
pattern. It was an unpromising experiment because it had already
been proven that protein crystals give no diffraction pattern. This
was only to be expected because the great German chemist Richard
Willstatter and his pupils had shown that proteins are colloids
of random structure, and the enzymatic activity of J.H. Northrop's
crystalline pepsin did not reside in the protein, which was but
inert carrier for its real, yet to be isolated, active principle.
Besides, even if the German chemist were wrong, and a diffraction
pattern were obtained, it would clearly be impossible to deduce
from it structures of molecules as larger and complex as proteins.
Contrary to all reason, or perhaps because they had not read the
literature, Bernal and Crowfoot discovered that pepsin crystals
did give an X-ray diffraction pattern. It was made up of sharp reflections
that extended to spacing of the order of inter atomic distances,
showing that pepsin was not a colloid of random coils, but an ordered
three-dimensional structure in which most of its 5,000 atoms occupy
definite places. Their observation opened the subject of protein
crystallography. (emphasis not in original).
In the historical development of science, Bernal
has a leading place. It was not so much for his actual contribution.
As stated above he demonstrated that if treated correctly a protein
crystal could retain its order during irradiation by X-rays and
the three-dimensional structure could be worked out from the information
scattered become of X-rays. His students went on to solve the structures
of haemoglobin and other key materials. The application of X-ray
crystallography to structural analysis of complex molecules revolutionised
our understanding of biology.
Bernal was the originator of the study of viruses
by X-ray crystallography. This is because Bernal could visualise
the utility of X-ray diffraction in determining the structure of
virus and he and Isador Fankuchen (1905-64) had taken the first
X-ray photograph of Tobacco Mosaic Virus and Tomato Bushy Stunt
Virus in the 1930s. Bernal also conducted research into the origin
of life and the structure and composition of the Earth's crust.
It can be said that Bernal's work with Dorothy
Hodgkin, Isidor Fankuchen and others on X-ray crystallography effectively
started molecular biology. Bernal had anticipated 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. That
Bernal was right became amply clear when Watson and Crick unravelled
the structure of the DNA- the double helix.
Science was absolutely central both to Bernal's
social thinking and to his philosophical thinking. The scientific
method encompassed the whole of his life. Bernal viewed science
as a social activity, integrally tied to the whole spectrum of other
social activities; economic, social and political. According to
Bernal, the cause of science was inextricably intertwined with the
cause of socialism. He believed that "In its endeavor science
is communism". Bernal had proposed that government support
and planning of scientific research would be the best means of improving
the condition of human life. For Bernal there was no philosophy,
no social theory, no knowledge independent of science. Science was
the foundation of it all. Bernal's philosophy of science was in
the tradition of Engel's. The important thing about Engel's concept
of nature, as Bernal saw it, was that Engle's saw it as a whole
and as a process. Bernal founded altogether a new discipline called
"Science of Science". Its objective was to overcome overspecialization
and to achieve the unity of science. "It placed science within
the context of the whole of human and cosmic evolution. Its central
idea was the process of transformation, and its scope was the whole
range of human experience".
Bernal's own writings included : The World, the
Flesh and the Devil (1929); The Social Function of Science (1939);
The Freedom of Necessity (1949); The Physical Basis of Life (1950);
Science and Industry in the Nineteenth Century (1953); Science in
History (1954); World Without War (1958); Origin of Life (1967)
and The Extension of Man--Physics Before the Quantum (1972).
Bernal collaborated in the 1940 monograph on steroids with Isidor
Fankuchen and Dorothy crowfoot Hodgkin, in which crystal data were
listed for more than eighty sterol derivatives. "The Social
Function of Science", which Bernal wrote became the most celebrated
piece of work. Many a people were greatly influenced by it. During
the same period when he was involved in groundbreaking research
on the crystals of biologically important substances like sterols,
proteins and viruses.
Jerry Rabetz, historian and philosopher of science,
wrote in his essay, the Marxist Vision of J.D. Bernal : "With
a magnificent sweep, his surveys run through the history, sociology,
political critqiue and the future of science. His was a coherent
vision, one deriving from a great tradition of progressive thought
about science, which first matured to the mid - 18th century but
was, I think, and enriched and deepened by Bernal's own intense
concern for science and democracy … Bernal's Social Function
of Science was perhaps the last of the great testaments of science
in which a person of broad intelligence and philosophical depth
could argue coherently the social problems of the world, and of
science itself, could be solved simply by the methods and approach
Eugene Garfield wrote: "Through my career--
in fact, since my early adolescence - I have been fascinated by
the history and sociology of science. Indeed, it is quite likely
that a book my uncle gave me at the end of my freshman year in high
school - John D. Bernal's The Social Function of Science was the
spark that ignited my incipient interests in research and influenced
my eventual decision to make a career for myself in the science
In Science in History Bernal gave a general review
of the achievements of science as a whole, revealing its philosophical
significance and role in human history. In World Without War he
discussed the prospects of the peaceful use of scientific discoveries
for the benefit of humanity.
Towards the end of his life Bernal was not happy
about the way science was being done. Jerry Rabetz had asked Bernal
in the early 1960s in London at a British Society of History of
Science meeting : "How do you feel now nearly 25 years after
you published your great work on the social function of science?
How do you feel about science especially now since the lessons have
been absorbed?" Bernal replied: "Oh, it's all a racket.
Back in the old days we all loved science, we were in it just because
we loved it and it was a great fun. But now you have all kids, it
is just careers and they don't care. All they want is more money
and more personnel. It is terrible".
Bernal was deeply involved in wartime activities
during the Second World War. After the Germans invaded Russia, he
threw all his energies into aggressive war. Under the aegis of the
Ministry of Home Security, Bernal carried out with Solly Zuckerman
an important analysis of the effects of enemy bombing. He became
an Advisor to Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-79), the Chief of Combined
Operations. He went to the Quebec Conference and helped plan the
invasion of Europe. After the War, Bernal worked for establishing
peace on the globe.
Bernal died, at the age of seventy on 15 September
1971. Bernal was an active, often restless man but unfortunately
for some years before his death he had lost almost all muscular
movement. He could not speak even with amplifier except those of
his nearest connections who could catch his tone of voice.
We would like to end this brief write-up on Bernal
by quoting C.P. Snow on Bernal : "..all through this 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 this temperament
he was self-centred, 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".
Certainly we need many more Bernals today - to inspire the younger
generation and to generate ideas worthy of pursuing.
I would like to thank Prof. Santosh K.
Kar, Centre for Biotechnology, Jawaharlal Nehru University
for giving me the book, Science Is not a quite Life : Unravelling
the Atomic Mechanism of Haemoglobin by Max Perutz and Dr.
A.K. Mathur of NISTADS for providing some information on Barnal.
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