JOHN DESMOND BERNAL
Elected F.R.S. 1937
By Dorothy M. C. Hodgkin, O.M., F.R.S.
Reprinted Wthottl Chang? ttf fmginutian frntti
Biographical Memoirs of Fellow b of the Royal Society,
Volume 26, December 1980
JOHN DESMOND BERNAL
10 May 1901 — 15 September 1971
Elected F.R.S. 1937
By Dorothy M. C. Hodgkin, O.M., F.R.S.
John Desmond Bernal lived his life to the full. He liked to say that his biography
ought to be written in four colours, on interleaved pages, to show his different
activities, fitted together. Oral tradition differs as to the colour of the pages;
black and white, certainly for science, red for politics, blue for arts, purple or
yellow for his personal life. This biographical note necessarily covers mainly
the black and white pages, though others may ultimately prove as important
for mankind. In his scientific work he was a great pioneer, whose ideas and early
experiments made possible many of the major advances of our time in our
understanding of structure and function in physics, chemistry and biology.
The earliest records of the name Bernal are in Spanish accounts of a family of
Sephardic Jews. In 1502 one Bernal, an apothecary, travelled with Columbus on
his third voyage to America. 1 In 1654 Abraham Nunez Bernal was burnt alive
at Cordoba and his brother is supposed to have fled to Holland first and then to
England. In 1688-89 Joseph Bernal is referred to as a member of the Mahamad
or Council of the Sephardic Synagogue. Abraham Bernal, probably his son,
was a member in 1714-15 and 1718-19. His son, Jacob Israel Bernal, was also
prominent but committed in 1744 the almost unforgivable crime of marrying a
Tudesca Ashkenazi for which he was removed from office. By then the family
was wealthy, with estates in the West Indies. His two sons, Isaac and Jacob
Israel, both left the community in the 1780s. The descendants of Jacob Israel
Bernal the younger were very well known in Victorian society. His son, Ralph
Bernal, was an M.P. and made passionate speeches against the abolition of the
slave trade. He was a collector of note ; much of his collection after his death
was sold and went to the British Museum, the most famous piece being the
crystal of Lothair. Ralph Bernal's son, Ralph Bernal the younger, married the
daughter of Sir Arthur Osborne and hyphened his name to Bernal-Osborne. He
was known as the wittiest man in London and won several elections to Parliament
through brilliance, losing them again by neglect of his constituencies. His two
daughters married Sir Henry Arthur Blake and the Duke of St Albans. John
Desmond Bernal was related to these Bernals through Esther Bernal who, in
1795, claimed a grant from an early Bernal Trust by virtue of her descent from a
18 Biographical Memoirs
nephew of Abraham Nunez Bernal. Esther married Sampson Genese who
changed his name to Bernal. He was the father, or grandfather, of John Genese
Bernal who was well established as an auctioneer, living in a substantial house
Very Frenchy in style', Albert Lodge, Laurel Hill Avenue, Limerick, in the
middle of the nineteenth century. John Genese Bernal married Catherine
O'Carroll and had twelve children. Samuel George Bernal was one of three sons.
Samuel Bernal ran away to Australia when young and worked on a sheep
farm. He returned in 1898 when his father died and lived with his elder sister,
Mrs Riggs-Miller, helping her with her estate until he could set up his own farm,
which he bought at Brookwatson, near Nenagh. It was on a holiday with his
sister at the very popular resort on the Belgian coast, Blankenberg, that he met
Elizabeth Miller, travelling as companion to a neighbour of hers. There is a
fantastic story (told by her daughter Geraldine) that Elizabeth Miller tried
bathing for the first time in a long bathing dress, as worn in those days, and sat
down suddenly in the sand under the sea with only the tips of her fingers
showing. Samuel Bernal saw her, rushed in and rescued her, and so the romance
began. In a month they were engaged to be married.
Elizabeth (Bessie) Miller was an American, the daughter of a Presbyterian
clergyman, the Rev. William Miller, married to Elisabeth Johnston, who was
born at Moneyglass House, Toombridge, Co. Antrim. The family lived in San
Jose, California, but their two girls, Elizabeth and her sister Laetitia, were sent to
Mme Bovet's Academy in New Orleans, where they learnt very good French.
In 1891 they attended lectures at Stanford University during the first year of its
foundation ; they are listed in the register of attached students. In the following
years the two girls travelled in Europe, went to lectures at the Sorbonne and
visited churches, museums and places of beauty and interest in France and
Italy rather like the heroines of a Henry James novel. Bessie Miller wrote articles,
some of which were published in the San Francisco Argonaut. Sometimes her
brother Jack (who became a doctor) joined her, cycling through the country.
The Bernal family had adopted the Catholic faith in Ireland. Elizabeth Miller,
who had been brought up a Protestant, agreed to become a Catholic and was
instructed and received into the Church in time for her wedding, which took
place on 9 January 1900. After a honeymoon in Paris, Samuel and Bessie Bernal
came to Ireland, staying for a short time with Mrs Riggs-Miller until the house
at Brookwatson was sufficiently ready for them to live there. Brookwatson is
a very pleasant house set in the most beautiful country, with hills and woods
and streams around it. There John Desmond Bernal was born on 10 May 1901,
followed soon after by his brother, Kevin O'Carroll, on 22 January 1903. Two
sisters, Geraldine and Fiona, were added in 1906 and 1908; then all the children
got whooping cough and, sadly, Fiona died. The last child, Godfrey, was born
in 1910. The Bernals continued to be very fond of travelling. Bessie Bernal took
her eldest son, Desmond, over to America to visit her mother in November
1903, a journey of which he records his earliest memories. In 1906 her mother
died, and Laetitia (called Cuddy by the children) came to live in Brookwatson.
She had fallen in love, when in Paris, with a young Scotsman, a member of
John Desmond Bernal 19
Parliament, and was engaged to be married to him when he died of pneumonia.
So she made her home with her sister and cared for her children; she was a
very motherly person, more so than Bessie.
Desmond Bernal wrote several autobiographical sketches. His first was begun
on 14 January 1909, when he was seven, and is very brief, in the form of a diary
which ended after a few days; later he look up diary writing fairly seriously
until 1922 when his entries became scanty. The most ambitious of his auto-
biographical writings is a long fragment called 'Microcosm', 2 begun when he
was 25, which sets out to give 'a sum of all the influences that have borne on
me'. It includes personal influences, parents, home and country, learning,
Ireland, religion and fantasy, public school, the war, Cambridge, marriage, and
also the influence of ideas and experience, the physical universe, the biological
universe, the human universe. So, in 'Microcosm', he wrote of his home and
his parents and Cuddy:
'The limits of the World are the hills ... the hills are very far away,
purple or brown or blue or black, veined with snow, not green like our own
fields. House and yard, garden, fields and river, that was my world. The
smell of cows, the sound of milking in the morning, hot hours with the tram
builders in the lawn field, watching the men bring the horses home in the
evening, those were my days. To play in lofts or hay sheds, to walk down to
the Holy Well and to see the running water of the weir, or see it smooth and
deep by the sandy banks of the burrow, those were my joys.
'The farm was Daddy's, the house and the garden were Mammy's. Daddy
was a fine man, a great playboy in his time, running away from school to
Australia, years of riding and minding sheep, then coming back, marrying
and building up the house and farm from the ruin that he found it. He was
always planning, building, improving. He had no liking for reading and
writing though he was a great talker and his delight was to walk over the
fields, looking at the cattle and the grain and scratching the bullocks' backs
with the end of his stick. He was a good Catholic and a good husband, ruling
the house and beating his children because he knew it was his duty though
it did not fit with his easy and kindly nature. A broad powerful man, very
'Mammy was tall and beautiful. She came from America but she had
spent years in Italy and France, so that I can never remember a time when
French was not my other language. A language of gentleness, when I was
scolded I could always beg "say it in French". She would spend her days
among flowers and fruit in the garden or making the most delicious cakes
or reading French fairy stories to us. Through her I realized the outside
world of beauty in form and language. She had no care for her own self, but
fiercely for Daddy for whom she had abandoned even her religion. She
was always kind and generous, but with an uncomprehending scorn for all
20 Biographical Memoirs
base things which expressed itself in a reserve of sensitivity which was never
penetrated and a cold and relentless anger.
'Cuddy was her sister, a fierce supporter of work and cleanliness,
protestant to the catholics but taking God on hard terms, reading history
avidly when she was not feeding chickens or weeding in the garden.
Loathing the Irish for their laziness, their dirt and their dishonesty, but
unable to escape the charm of their language and the ingenuity of their
evasions. Her own life broken by the misfortune of death, sex was an
anathema that she could not forget. Unfailingly generous, she devoted her
life to her sister and her perverse and ungrateful nephews'.
He described the beginning of his education :
'Books appeared and I learned to read. Catechism at the nuns after Mass.
Sister Mary Rose taught me lettering and geometry. She seemed no bigger than
I was, incredibly old and bent.'
When Desmond was five and Kevin three, the two boys were sent to the local
Diocesan School. 'It was Protestant; Mammy thought we would get lice and
diseases at the Christian Brothers, but we got them just the same.'
He has left a picture of a tough life at the school, with grand fights at lunch
times, School against yard, when the masters were away. In the big school, there
were about twenty, boys and girls, all doing different lessons — the eldest were
intended for Trinity
'I learned things well. Learning was so easy with formal things, theorems
of Euclid, Declensions and Conjugations. Everything clear cut, you have
it or you haven't it, true or untrue, right or wrong. I learned because I
knew that learning would give me an understanding of things. It might be
dull but it was a clear necessity. Life seemed to be in front of me like a
wheel, so many turns to go before the liberty of being grown up. The one
thing I wanted for enjoyment, Greek, to be able to read the Iliad and the
Odyssey, was never allowed me, but the hard unemotional competence of
Caesar comforted me a little. History at school meant very little, but the
history of Ireland that I read to myself at home, the long oppressions, the
repeated failures, moved me to self-pitying resentment, a determination to
be myself the instrument of delivery.
'There was no science at school, no hint of it, except in one reading book
that had extracts from Faraday's lectures. I heard from my cousin at Oxford
of liquid air. They talked at breakfast one day of X-rays. I thought of the
bright sun through my hands showing black bones against dark red flesh,
and that night, piling white books around the lamp that I was given to read
by, I tried to get the mysterious rays. The books fell down, the lamp rolled
off the table and broke. Daddy came up and thrashed me because he was so
frightened that I might have burnt myself.
'But inventions were even more exciting, engines and boats, cannons and
electricity. You could see how they worked, how they were thought of. I
could even think of new ones myself.
John Desmond Bernal 21
'And then one day I conceived of the idea that dominated ten years of my
life. I would use science and apply it to war to liberate Ireland. But why
stop at Ireland ? Science was so strong, the military art so stupid that once
in hand, the world could be conquered and I would do it. . . .
'Yet I was all the time rationalizing the primitive impulse while preserving
the equally primitive object. I wanted now the economic welfare of society
which only a dictatorially governed world state (under my direction) could
give. I visualised a grateful, almost self-governing community, rather than
populations cowed by fierce Irish garrisons.
'But I never doubted the possibility of the scheme, except when sin made
me feel that God might not favour my prospects on account of my un-
When Desmond was 10, he and his brother Kevin were taken from the local
school and sent to England to Hodder, the preparatory school for the Jesuit
public school, Stoneyhurst, and then Desmond spent three months at
Stoneyhurst itself. Apart from homesickness, he was not unhappy in the quiet
religious atmosphere of Hodder 'made by the gentleness of Father Cassidy'.
He started the practice of 'cutting grottoes to our Lady in the hillside and a
fraternity of Perpetual Adoration of the Sacred Heart'. At Stoneyhurst he was
miserable. He learned nothing he said but the 'joys of prison life', and it did not
give him what he wanted, the knowledge and power of science. His mother was
persuaded to send him and Kevin instead to an ordinary Protestant English
Public School, Bedford School.
He did not like Bedford School — dull repetitive games and military drill— but
he found it possible to learn everything he wanted, particularly by reading nearly
every book in the school library. In his diaries he recorded every experiment he
did in lessons in physics and chemistry. Apart from learning he lived 'like a
hostage in an enemy land', escaping as best he could from 'the perpetual drill
and from the ragging and torturing I brought on myself by my pale untidy
ugliness and my obstinate insistence on being different'.
'Another escape was the stars. I would watch night after night, sitting before
the transit instrument with the lamp beside me and my chronometer on my
knees for those quiet spots of light sailing so smoothly, so surely, over the field,
past each of the five cross wires. They had the constancy of old friends, Arcturus,
Antares, and Lyrae. And I would forget there, in the quiet garden, the applepie
bed that was awaiting me in the dormitory, or the jug of water they would surely
try to pour down the telescope'.
Perhaps he exaggerated his unhappiness at Bedford School. It was his house-
master, A. C. Tearle, who lent him his telescope and called him his Astronomer
Royal. Kevin and one or two others used sometimes to watch stars with him.
He had some friends who were important to him. Lovell Hodgkinson, who died
young, and Broughton Twamley, who went with him to Cambridge and later
became a distinguished historian. He always enjoyed rowing.
Certainly life at home in the holidays was far happier and varied with family
22 Biographical Memoirs
expeditions in Ireland and abroad. He was able to carry out all sorts of scientific
pursuits: Geraldine, his sister, remembers him collecting fossils and getting
methane out of stagnant water and setting light to it. On one occasion he
demonstrated the properties of sodium to her in the kitchen, dropping it into
hot water: after a bit it caught fire. 'Kate and Brigid screamed and he took the
saucepan off the stove — actually nothing really happened'. Kate and Brigid,
who worked in the kitchen, were long suffering. When one day Desmond
accidentally shot a bullet from his room above the kitchen through the floor,
which fortunately missed them, they hid the hole and never told his parents.
The most serious scientific work he did was with the good microscope he
bought for himself in January 1913. From that time on almost every other day
his diary, when at home, ends with the words 'worked with my microscope in
the evening'. At one period Geraldine remembers going out to collect dirty
water for him to examine day after day. He had a white book full of beautifully
drawn and labelled microorganisms. At another time he made a very good
flower collection. He also bought and experimented with chemicals; cobalt
chloride cost him £2, to his horror. At one time he used an upper room in the
house as his laboratory, at another the apple store room in the garden.
The last part of Desmond's school days were shadowed by war and the
troubles in Ireland. He was too young to take part in the war himself (though he
expected to do so) but he saw his friends, only a little older, going out to
the trenches and not coming back. Then, at the end of the holidays in Ireland
in 1916, when his father set out to take the boys back to school, they found it
impossible to reach the station; the Sinn Fein had seized Dublin. A week later
they were able to proceed through the smoking ashes of the town; they got
permits from a 'fierce military officer in Kingston, with a revolver on his knee,
guarded by Boy Scouts'. Next year, the troubles spread nearer home, country
houses around them were set on fire, though Brookwatson escaped. The destruc-
tion of so much that was beautiful even in a cause of which he approved had a
lasting effect upon him. One term, spring 1918, the Irish Channel was too
dangerous to cross and the boys stayed in Ireland, Desmond to study in Dublin,
Kevin back in Nenagh. As the war drew to its end, he was able to return to
Bedford and take the Cambridge examinations. He won several school prizes
and a scholarship to Emmanuel College.
During his last holidays at home, his father's health, which had been failing
for many months, became much worse. Desmond spent a great deal of time
reading to him and caring for him. Early in September he had to go to Cambridge
for college examinations. His father died on the day of Desmond's last paper,
18 September, and Desmond came back to Ireland the next day for the funeral,
returning soon after it to Cambridge.
Life in Cambridge University was more than usually both exciting and serious
in 1919. Apart from boys coming straight from school like Desmond Bernal
John Desmond Bernal 23
there were hundreds of returning soldiers. Among themselves they discussed
endlessly all the problems of the day, science of course, in which there were
many new developments, and economics, politics and religion. Desmond
Bernal's whole outlook was changed. 'All Cambridge was a liberation', he
wrote, 'all the richness of thought was open to me' ; and again, 'in the whole
field of thought I have no one supreme interest and am fascinated wherever I
His diaries tell of day-to-day events, his first meeting with his tutor, P. W.
Wood,* and the decision to take mathematics, Part 1 in his first year, his work with
Mr. Herman, f his supervisor — 'a good scholar but a poor teacher' he thought, the
lectures he went to, rowing, books, scientific and public meetings, and friends.
So on 20 October 1919, shortly after the beginning of term, he went 'at eight to
a meeting in Alex Wood's room to resuscitate the Emmanuel Senior Science
Club'. He found as a mathematician he was not at that time eligible to belong —
but went on 31 October instead to a meeting of the Science Society. On 21
October he records 'reading books in a bookshop, Arcadian Adventures with the
Idle Rich'. On 29 October 'I got out of the College library two books on
Assyriology'. Of his lectures, he was enthusiastic about those by Grace.* On 22
January he wrote 'I like Grace's lectures more and more. Everything is very
symmetrical'. On 13 February 'Mr. Grace is more and more interesting. A lot
of beautiful mathematics about Poncelet's porism and 22 symmetric relations'.
In the evening 'delighted with the Faery Queen by Purcell'. He went to public
lectures by Eddington, by Bevin and by Cole.
On 7 November H. D. Dickinson (later Professor of Economics at Bristol)
spoke about socialism, 'a most marvellous thing', and stayed to talk with Bernal
in his room afterwards. In 'Microcosm' Bernal wrote 'he explained it all so
simply in a few hours, the theory of Marxism, the great Russian experiment,
what we could do here and now. It was all so clear, so compelling, so universal.
How narrow my Irish patriotism seemed, how absurdly reactionary my military
schemes. ... It was the people themselves that would sweep away all the things
I hated. ... It would bring the Scientific World State. But where did I come in,
clearly nowhere. One served the movement as one could in the place where one
was called. I saw my whole life of vanity and there and then, to break it forever,
told the infantile secret to Dick who had given me this new light and life. We
parted at five. My universe was broken to bits'.
The entry in his diary, 7 November, reads 'a turning point in my life. At last
I have been shifted into the first eight and row three'. Which might seem a rather
ambiguous dating of an important event did not 8 November begin 'I got up in
the morning at 9, not very tired and perfectly happy. My old life was broken to
bits and the new lay in front of me'.
* Philip Worsley Wood, 1880-1956: Fellow, 1905, Senior Tutor, 1921.
t Probably Robert Alfred Herman, Senior Wrangler, 1882, Professor of Mathematics at
University College, Liverpool, 1884-6, University lecturer, Cambridge, 1906 on; died 1927.
He possessed a wide range of mathematical knowledge and great skill in hydrodynamical
X John Hilton Grace, 1873-1958; F.R.S. 1908.
24 Biographical Memoirs
Slowly, during his first year, his faith in the Catholic religion left him. He
told in 'Microcosm' a story of the ending of the process.
'The morning was fine. Broughton came round to breakfast. "Let's ride over
to Ely to-day and see the cathedral." "I should like to, I have always wanted to,
but you know it's Sunday, I must go to Mass." "All right then, I think it's silly,
but I don't want to interfere with your conscience." "I wonder if I have one.
Anyway I will go and see." We walked by the great pillars of the nave. Minutely,
at the far end, the black robed ministers held their service to their congregation
of two dozen old people. Religion slipped from me like a worn out cloak'. A
love of great cathedrals remained.
Most of Desmond's close friends at Cambridge were not scientists — H. D.
Dickinson (Dick), Allen Hutt, Broughton Twamley, Maurice Dobb, Ivor
Montagu (a biologist, however), are often named in the diaries, and several girls,
Dora Grey, Sylvia Sworn* and Eileen Sprague, who joined in their meetings about
socialism and expeditions on the river. It was Dora Grey, according to Allen
Hutt, who gave Desmond the nickname Sage (because he knew so much) by
which he became known to his students and many friends for the rest of his life.
And at the end of his third year, two days after he took his degree, Desmond
Bernal and Eileen Sprague were married, spending the rest of the day on the
river with Allen Hutt and Dora. Science was still the dominating interest in his
life. Robin Hill, who was also at Emmanuel, remembers, 'how he would be
silent for most of an undergraduate Science Club meeting in College — then he
would develop his ideas at length and at speed, completely dominating the
atmosphere'. He added, 'I was always keen to get him to discourse on the
foundations of aesthetics — this was highly stimulatory as there was much one
couldn't agree with'.
Desmond Bernal took the mathematical Tripos Part 1 (Class II.l) in 1920,
Natural Sciences Tripos Part I in Physics, Chemistry, Geology and Mineralogy
in 1922 (Class I) and Physics Part II (Class II) in 1923. His diaries show that
from his first term his mind was turning in directions not really useful to him in
examinations. Against his tutor's advice he continued to go to Grace's lectures in
his second term, and on 23 April 1920, the beginning of his third term, he wrote :
T made some very interesting investigations on three dimensional reciprocation
and brought in some new surfaces, also reciprocation w r t a circle of complex
radius, and on various mesh systems. I had a short and rather terrifying interview
with P. W. in the morning. My work this term is to be revision.'
Fortunately his next years were happy. Alexander Wood became his tutor.
There is a nice entry showing the changed climate.
Saturday, 16 July 1920. 'Explaining to Alec how I had completely forgotten
the name of the man I had to interview was easier than I had expected : Mr.
Hutchinson O.B.E., a very gentlemanly don at Pemmer.'
Some time during his last two years he became fascinated by the possible
different types of arrangement of atoms in space and ways of working these out
*Newnham medical student, married H. D. Dickinson and was briefly Astbury's assistant.
John Desmond Bernal 25
mathematically, using quaternions. By this time his diaries are briefer, it is not
clear from where he got his ideas or exactly when. There are suggestive entries ;
21 September 1921, 'A well spent day. Vector theory'. 10 November 1921, 'Dr
Darwin's lecture. I made remarks on vectors'. 13 March 1922, 'Crystal work'.
14 March, 'Hardwork'. There is a fragment of a paper called 'The Vectorial
Geometry of Space Lattices' in Cambridge University Library which seems to
precede his later project. At some time, after he had made considerable progress,
he realized that essentially he was covering the work of Federov, Barlow and
Schoenflies, who had derived the 230 space groups of crystallography by
different methods at the end of the nineteenth century. With some hesitation
he persisted and completed his own derivation. It must have taken a terrible
amount of time off his ordinary work during his last year at the University.
Eileen typed it for him during the last two weeks of February 1923, and
there was considerable discussion with Arthur Hutchinson, then lecturer
in Mineralogy, and with Professor H. F. Baker in the following weeks
about what should be done with it. The Cambridge Philosophical Society
expressed interest in publishing it, until they saw what was involved; even a
60-page cut version was too long for them. Bernal submitted it for a college
prize, and on 19 May was awarded the Sudbury Hardyman prize of £30 for
his thesis 'On the analytic theory of point group systems'. (Another Sudbury
Hardyman prize was in the same year awarded to R. G. W. Norrish.)
Although the thesis was not published, it started Bernal on his research career.
Hutchinson had a particular interest in X-ray crystallography ever since the day
in 1912 3 when the young W. L. Bragg had asked his advice about which crystal
structure he should first try to solve — Hutchinson advised him to talk to Pope
and Barlow who had theories about crystal structures and this led to his working
on sodium chloride. Hutchinson then helped him to obtain the crystals he
needed. In 1921 Hutchinson advised another young Cambridge graduate, W. T.
Astbury, to go and work with Sir William Bragg at University College London.
He now recommended Bernal to do the same. It seems worth while quoting
part of his letter to Sir William Bragg for the picture it gives of Bernal at the time. 4
'Dear Sir William Bragg, 25th June 1923
I am venturing to write to you on behalf of a pupil of mine, Bernal by
name, whose work on point systems has, I think, been sent to you — Bernal
is I think quite a remarkable person ; he is a shy, diffident, retiring kind of
creature, but something of a genius. He attended my course on Elementary
Crystallography and I realized that he was interested and was taking things in
quickly. I did not however realize (and he never let on) that he had got so
keen that he spent the whole of his next vacation in developing a method of
dealing with point systems in the hope that it might be useful in X-ray
work ! When therefore, he suddenly appeared and deposited on my table a
thick type-written MS., rather with the air of a dog bringing a poached
rabbit to his master's feet, I was quite amazed — of course I make no
pretence of being able to appraise its merit or even its usefulness — still it
26 Biographical Memoirs
seemed to me a remarkable effort for an undergraduate in his third year —
and Professor H. F. Baker was much interested in it and I believe thinks
well of it.'
Sir William Bragg replied that Alexander Wood had already written to him
about Bernal, and sent the dissertation, that he would be very glad to have
Bernal work with him but that at the present he had no money to offer, only
remission of fees. He was himself just moving from University College to the
Royal Institution and all his research funds were already allocated. He wondered
whether Bernal had any 'means of subsistence, say for a year'.
Emmanuel College came to the rescue with a research grant for the first
months in London, Bernal had some means, Eileen Bernal continued to work as
a secretary and in the following May Sir William was able to obtain a salary for
Bernal (£15 a month) as his research assistant from the managers of the Royal
Bernal liked to tell how, very shyly, he asked Sir William what he thought of
his thesis on the space groups. 'Good God, man, you don't think I read it' Sir
William is said to have replied. The first page was sufficient to show that the
young man was worth encouraging in research.
As far as is known, only one person, apart from Bernal himself, ever read the
full version of 'The analytic theory of point systems'. This was Carl Hermann,
in Stuttgart on the night of 19 June 1928. Paul Ewald remembers still how
Bernal visited himself and Carl Hermann and brought out the thesis for them to
examine. Ewald sat in the middle, with the text on his knees, and the two young
men sat on either side, turning over the pages and commenting on the text till
they were tired and Hermann took it away to read for himself. According to
Bernal, he said 'There's a mistake on p. '. All the same the thesis provided
the foundation for Bernal's great interest and usefulness in the later international
work on space group tables for structure analysis.
London ; The Royal Institution ; Graphite and the rotation method
In his memoir on W. T. Astbury, Bernal has described, partly in Astbury's
words, the Royal Institution as he saw it in 1923 — he came in October of the
first year of Sir William Bragg's directorship of the Davy Faraday laboratory.
He found already a group of young research workers who had mostly come with
Bragg from University College ; Muller and Shearer, who worked on X-ray tubes
and long chain compounds, Astbury and Kathleen Yardley (later Lonsdale),
who had a common interest in space groups and were beginning work on organic
crystals, and Gibbs, who studied the forms of silica, tridymite and quartz. They
were joined later by J. M. Robertson, Cox and George, Weiss and Mathieu from
France, A. L. Patterson from Canada, Burgers from Holland and Orelkin from
the U.S.S.R. 'It was a very happy time: there was no real rivalry because the
world was quite big enough for all their work. They were effectively and actually
a band of research workers, dropping into each others rooms, discussing
informally over lunch and ping pong and formally in Bragg's colloquia each
John Desmond Bernal 27
week'. Bragg encouraged each to choose his own project for research, devise
and set up his own apparatus with technical assistance only when necessary in
building new equipment. Bernal found setting up X-ray tubes extremely
difficult. Muller helped him but his language became unprintable as things went
wrong, particularly when the Winchester bottle in which they kept the back
vacuum broke with a loud explosion, or rather implosion. 5 Bernal did his best
to escape into theoretical crystallography — Bragg managed to persuade him
otherwise ; he wanted him to solve the structure of graphite.
Bernal's first draft note on graphite begins with the words 'The problem of
the structure of graphite was suggested to me by Sir William Bragg.' 2 Bragg had
recently revised the book on X-rays and crystal structure and found it dis-
heartening to report there was disagreement between the structures for graphite
proposed in 1917 by Debye and Scherrer and by Hull, in each case from powder
photographs. An early "Laue photograph taken by Ewald of a single crystal
had shown hexagonal symmetry: Bragg himself had measured the cleavage
spacing as 3.42 A. Bernal looked into the literature, including mineralogical
observations, and observed that neither of the two structures agreed well with
the observations, nor did the two sets of observations agree well with one another.
He decided that it was necessary to study single crystals of graphite and to use
the rotation method very recently introduced in Germany following experiments
of M. Polanyi, to separate individual reflexions and identify them correctly. By
careful dissection he found it possible to isolate a few small, more or less single,
crystal fragments from a specimen of Ceylon graphite given to him by Professor
Bernal liked to describe how he first tested the rotation method, mounting a
crystal at the centre of a kitchen alarm clock with a piece of brass tube above it,
within which was placed the film, held in position by bicycle clips. Everything
worked, if approximately, so he had a more stable apparatus constructed in the
laboratory. The X-rays were copper X-rays from a Shearer tube, confined by
pinholes or slits in a narrow brass tube, and the crystal was mounted on a
goniometer head used in the laboratory for the ionisation spectrometer. A small
cylindrical camera, radius 2.25 cm was made and accurately mounted normal to
the beam holder. By taking photographs with the crystal rotating about two
different axes 21 out of the 25 theoretically obtainable reflexions were recorded—
the missing four were all weak high index reflexions.
Bernal found the calculations to identify the reflexions cumbrous to repeat
and developed a chart from which two coordinates could be read for every
reflection. The curves on his first chart related the positions on the film to the
angles 0, the Bragg angle, and a, the angle between the normal to the reflecting
plane and the axis of rotation. From the coordinates read for the two different
rotation settings, it was possible to draw a stereographic projection providing
unambiguous indices for each reflexion. No high accuracy was claimed for the
measurements. The spacings were calculated by reference to exact measurements
with the ionization spectrometer of (hexagonal indexing) reflexions from the
basal plane (0001) and the plane (0T11).
28 Biographical Memoirs
In the making of these measurements Bernal's companions helped. Astbury
made the first ionization spectrometer measurements, followed by Wood
and later Kathleen Yardley, on different crystals. Astbury alone took four Laue
photographs, of crystals II, IV, V and VI. None of the crystals was perfectly
single, I was a twin, but a single set of reflexions in each case was relatively easily
The lattice indicated by the observed reflexions had the dimensions a =2.4 A
and c=6.82 A and was clearly close to that derived by Hull and not that found
by Debye and Scherrer (who had made several indexing errors). The unit cell
contained only four atoms and their arrangement in the crystal was narrowly
defined by the symmetry. They had to lie in layers relative to the basal plane at
z=0, \t, |, \ + \t. Calculations on the relative intensities of the basal plane
reflexions, the only ones accurately measured, showed that t was almost
certainly 0, i.e. that the atoms lay exactly in two planes, linked in regular
hexagons. This conclusion is contrary to that reached by Hull — who deduced
that the layers were puckered — but agrees with Debye and Scherrer, that the
atoms are in plane nets. So both investigations were right in one respect, wrong
The structure was simple and fundamental. The carbon atoms were not
tetrahedral but as Bernal pointed out 'the proposed structure fits in well with
the later ideas of Bohr on the structure of the carbon atom. Instead of the four
L electrons being distributed in 2 X orbits ... he now postulates as the more
stable form an atom with only three 2 X orbits and one 2 2 orbit. This form would
possess trigonal symmetry only'. Bernal proceeded to discuss the various
properties of graphite related to the structure he had found — the metallic
properties, thermal and electrical conductivities, high absorption of light, its
possible relation to benzene, which perhaps could be explored via graphitic
acid. W. H. Bragg, like Hull, had postulated puckered ring structures for the
aromatic hydrocarbons which others of his students, Kathleen Lonsdale and
J. M. Robertson, were soon to follow Bernal in proving wrong.
Bernal's method plotting a stereographic projection of the reflecting planes
observed on a rotation photograph could not be extended to the more
complicated crystals on which work was beginning in the laboratory. He realized
that a far better approach to the indexing problem could be made by the use of
the concept of the reciprocal lattice introduced into crystallography — in
German — by Ewald in 1921. (Bernal once told C. H. Carlisle that he had himself
independently thought of the reciprocal lattice before he knew of Ewald 's work
and his 1920 diary confirms this, see p. 24.) He constructed new charts from
which it was possible to read directly coordinates in the reciprocal lattice for the
reflexions, appearing on X-ray photographs, taken either on flat plates or
cylindrical films. He showed that even the very complicated patterns from
crystals with large unit cells could be distinguished and easily indexed if the
complete rotation was broken into a series of oscillations, as small as necessary
to resolve reflexions. His long paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society is as
useful reading today for many beginners in crystallography as it was in 1926. It
John Desmond Bernal 29
describes fully — in English — the theory of the phenomena of X-ray diffraction
in terms of the reciprocal lattice and the best way to treat in practice crystals of
different types of symmetry and complexity.
With an effective method of indexing X-ray diffraction effects, Bernal turned
to the design of instruments, on which the diffraction spectra could be recorded
— instruments which could be supplied to every laboratory and save the time-
consuming apparatus-building in which he had been involved himself. The
result was the universal X-ray photogoniometer which was made to his design
and marketed by Messrs W. G. Pye and Co. at Cambridge. It was both a solid
and a versatile instrument, designed to take single crystal rotation and oscillation
photographs, Laue and powder photographs, and also, if desired, to be used as
an optical goniometer or for spectrographic work. Bernal completed the four
papers in which he described its construction and adjustment and use with
notes on how to handle, mount and set all kinds of crystals, clear or opaque,
with or without reflecting faces, unstable under ordinary conditions, at high or
low temperatures. So he prepared himself and the rest of the profession to take
on any problem that might appear.
By the time the last paper in the series was printed, Bernal had moved from
the Royal Institution to Cambridge. He had enjoyed in many ways his time in
London. The Bernals lived in Bloomsbury and made many friends among the
younger writers and artists. In 1923 they both joined the Communist Party and
the Holborn branch of the Labour Party, which was possible in those days, and
led an active political life, helping the strikers in the General Strike in 1926. But
financial support in London was tenuous. His assistant's salary from the Royal
Institution slowly rose to ,£300 a year. In 1926 his concern for his future led
him to write to his uncle Jack Miller in California for advice as to possible
openings in the United States. Dr Miller consulted Dr Campbell, President of
the University of California, and Dr R. H. Tucker, astronomer of the Lick
Observatory. At their request Professor Hall, U.C.L.A. produced a list of places
where X-ray work was being done — from Duane at Harvard to Coolidge and
Davey at G.E.C. Schenectady — but warned that there were many young men
seeking jobs and some teaching would certainly be required. Fortunately for
Bernal, Hutchinson became the Professor of Mineralogy in Cambridge in 1926
and proposed the creation of a new lectureship in structural crystallography.
The proposal was accepted by the Council of the Senate and the lectureship
advertised in 1927. Astbury, Bernal and Wooster, three of Hutchinson's pupils,
applied: on interview, Bernal, who knew so much what he wanted to do, was
most impressive and was duly elected, to begin in September 1927. Bernal wrote
to his mother, 18 August 1927, T heard yesterday that I had been appointed the
first lecturer in Structural Crystallography to the University of Cambridge. So
far it is an empty name and it will need a great deal of hard work and disappoint-
ment before I put any meaning into it. I have really to found a new school and I
cannot have the least idea of my abilities for it.'
In 'Microcosm' Bernal has left his own account of the influence important to
him in his time at London — different from all that has been written above.
30 Biographical Memoirs
T sat all day in the cellar next to where Faraday worked. All around were
great globes, which held the first of the rare gases, on the table a trough of
water and in the middle my beaker of heavy yellow liquid. I had six floats
of aluminium wire and six small counter weights and then I had my crystal,
very precious crystal, which I hung in a small cage, a cage the size of a
breadcrumb. One by one I had put the floats in with their counter weights,
and then gradually, with the most delicate touch, I cut with a razor a mere
shaving off the ends of the fine wires so that in the liquid they hung steadily
suspended neither rising nor falling. Each time I cut I weighed them again
on a fine balance made of quartz fibre. A thousandth of a milligramme more
or less, that is what I must know. All were out, and weighed and balanced,
and last of all the crystal in its cage was in the liquid and floated. I took
the aluminium wire and shaved and shaved at it until the whole stood
irresolutely in the liquid, moving still upwards. So imperceptibly upward,
that I seemed at the end of my task. I waited, then cut again, and now it
sank. I lifted the wire and the cage from the liquid, carefully, delicately and
then without knowing, my hand shook, it had disappeared, gone. The
crystal had gone. Crystal that I had worked on for months. Crystal about
which I knew everything, but that one final weighing, and now it was gone,
and those months of work with it. "Stupid," I thought, and as I gathered
patiently all the dust of that room, looking through it grain for grain, for
my crystal, "If you had thought more, this could not have happened". It
was stupid to arrange things so that any weakness or wavelength may lose
Kathleen Lonsdale recorded long after in Fifty years of X-ray diffraction as her
most vivid memory of him, Bernal on his knees, looking for that crystal. And
Bernal himself, in the same work, described the same episode: the crystal lost
was 5 bronze. In an unpublished draft paper at Cambridge the unusual method
of density determination described is said to be due to E. Sommerfeld.
Return to Cambridge
Bernal returned to Cambridge in the autumn of 1927, very warmly welcomed
by Professor Hutchinson, who sought to get everything ready for him that he
needed to begin research in X-ray analysis, plenty of water laid on, a new power
supply brought direct from the main, only eight lectures to give. The department
of mineralogy was small. Its staff consisted of the Professor, the lecturer in
mineralogy, F. C. Phillips, the lecturer in structural crystallography, J. D.
Bernal, the demonstrator in crystal physics, W. A. Wooster (another new idea of
Hutchinson's) and a laboratory technician, Arthur Lanham, a young man who
had no training whatever in mechanical work but trained himself with a very
primitive lathe he found there and became in time an excellent instrument
designer and the mainstay of everyone working in the laboratory. The Depart-
ment was very poorly housed in scattered, ancient buildings — a new building was
projected on the south side of Downing Street. In the meantime Bernal had
John Desmond Bernal 31
been assigned four rooms, a large dark cavernous room through which one
entered, in which he placed the X-ray equipment, a medium sized room with
tables and an old chemistry bench for his research students, a rather smaller
room for himself with a desk and a table for his microscope, a chest with little
drawers and some shelves, and a very small dark room. The rooms were
destroyed long ago, to make way for building the Austen wing of the Cavendish.
They had one great advantage; they were marvellously centrally situated for
someone with Bernal's wide interests. The Cavendish and all Physics were on
one side, the Philosophical library on the other, the Mond Laboratory and
Kapitza himself at one end, part of Zoology at the other ; Chemistry and Anatomy
and Zoology were all close at hand.
Lanham has a terrifying story 18 of how he and Bernal together set up the
first X-ray tube, a gas tube Bernal had brought from the Davy Faraday
laboratory. They fitted it together with the necessary sealing wax and string and
started to connect it up with an old transformer they had found as best they
could. At one moment Bernal held the earth wire and Lanham cut it — 'Sage
gave a tremendous yell and went half way across the room'. Lanham himself
was thrown six yards away on his back. Luckily, both survived. Bernal, as his
reputation grew, got grants for apparatus, particularly from the Goldsmiths
Company, with which he bought transformers and new sealed-off X-ray tubes.
The transformers were all placed in one corner of the room and the tubes fed with
very fine wires strung overhead by Lanham, who wrote, 'When you went into
the room your hair used to stand on end, literally. It was a miracle nothing
happened'. Actually, there were a number of near misses. Fankuchen knocked
over some apparatus one day and got a massive radiation dose and Max Perutz
was knocked out for a time on another, but luckily neither was seriously hurt.
The grimness and dangers are not what his students remember about the
place, as Max Perutz has written. For them 'it was transformed into a fairy
palace' by Bernal's learning and enthusiasm, the fascination of his conversation
and the great interest of the problems on which they were working. The Bernals
settled at first in the country outside Cambridge at Hildersham. This led to
the practice of Bernal and his students having lunch in the laboratory and talking
together. Every day, one of the group would go and buy fresh bread from
Fitzbillies, fruit and cheese from the market, while another made coffee on the
gas ring in the corner of the bench. One day there was talk about anaerobic
bacteria at the bottom of a lake in Russia and the origin of life, another, about
Romanesque architecture in French villages, or Leonardo da Vinci's engines of
war or about poetry or painting.* We never knew to what enchanted land we
would next be taken. More serious scientific discussions took place in the 'Space
Groups' an informal series of colloquia in crystallography.
And then as the laboratory became more and more of an international centre,
visitors would drop in to join us. At first this was through Bernal's visits abroad
and the early development of international crystallographic organizations. Later
many came to see the results of research in progress.
* I joined the group from 1932 to 1934.
32 Biographical Memoirs
BernaPs first major visit abroad was to the laboratories carrying out X-ray
crystallographic work on the continent in the summer of 1928, in Germany,
Holland and Switzerland; later he went to Scandinavia, France and the Soviet
Union. He found a great many, often large laboratories, in which the apparatus
was more primitive than his own and structure analyses were seldom carried
out beyond space group determination. There were exceptions — Ewald and
Carl Hermann were making important theoretical advances ; Mark had set up a
beautiful laboratory and was planning serious work for the future at
Ludwigshaven ; only Professor Jaeger in Groningen already used Bernal's
charts. For the rest, he met and talked with the great and well known, among
them Debye and Scherrer, Sommerfeld, Goldschmidt and Niggli. In Berlin he
spent one week giving lectures himself, as well as visiting institutes. He came
home and reported to Sir William Bragg, full of longing to see Crystallography
better organized — and full of ideas as to how it could be done. Sir William
approved and took advantage of the Faraday Society discussion on 'Crystal
structures and chemical constitution' the following spring to call a conference
of X-ray crystallographers at the Royal Institution on Friday 15 March 1929.
Three committees were set up, one on publication, one on nomenclature, one
on abstracts, which met several times in the following years and organised the
preparation and publication of the Internationale Tabellen zur Bestimmung von
Kristallstrukturen of which vol. I appeared in 1935. Bernal was the Secretary of
all three committees, but, fortunately, for his research students in Cambridge,
did not take on the main task of preparation of material for the international
publications. (Though judged by their correspondence, Astbury and Bernal did
derive a number of the structure factor formulae for vol. I.)
The Faraday Society discussion of March 1929 provided an excellent summary
of the state of knowledge of crystal structures at the outset of Bernal's work in
Cambridge — the extensive understanding of simple inorganic ionic compounds
provided by Goldschmidt's introduction, the classification of other different
structure types, adamantine, metallic, organic, molecular, in which work was
only just beginning. Bernal was interested in everything and kept up his
knowledge in the following years through the Annual reports of the Chemical
Society which he organized and partly wrote. In the Faraday Society discussion
he gave the opening paper in the section on metals, 'The problem of the
metallic state'. Here he gave the first clear statement that the interatomic
distances in many metals and alloys indicated that the bonds were predominantly
covalent in character.
The next crystal structure that Bernal investigated after graphite was, in
fact, that of S bronze and very complicated. A small single crystal, without
faces, had been grown by Weiss in the Davy Faraday laboratory. Bernal began
the work on it there and continued it in Cambridge, on other crystals after the
first crystal was lost. The unit cell proved to be cubic, of side 17.92 A, and
closely related to y brass, which was based on a cubic lattice of 8.87 A edge.
Calculations suggested that the cell contained 328 atoms copper and 88 atoms
tin, and that the compound should be formulated Cu^Snn, instead of Cu 4 S,
John Desmond Bernal 33
a formula which related it to Hume Rothery's y series of alloys with an electron :
atom ratio of 21 : 13. Bernal began to attempt to solve the structure in detail.
He went on to examine two other bronze crystals, e bronze and 17 bronze, both
of which were also, but differently, complicated. He was fascinated by the
problems revealed by the distribution of metal atoms in the formally simple
binary systems. His summary of existing structural knowledge in 1929 at the
discussion meeting is masterly. Long afterwards Hume-Rothery expressed
sorrow that Bernal had not continued to work in the field. He had instead begun
to make new friends in Cambridge among the biochemists, particularly J. B. S.
Haldane, Joseph and Dorothy Needham, Antoinette and N. W. Pirie and R. L.
M. Synge who took him in quite different directions. He joined in the discussions
organised by Dr J. H. Woodger on theoretical biology with C. H. Waddington
and a group of friends from various disciplines. He passed the 8 bronze data he
had collected over to Bradley and the e bronze crystals to Pauling.
Bernal's first research student was Nora Martin who later married W. A.
Wooster. Her brother, Archer Martin, used to drop into the laboratory to see
her; before he settled down as a biochemist, he made a small very useful
contribution to crystallographic research, a simple test for centrosymmetry in
a crystal. Bernal encouraged Nora Martin to work, as a natural extension of
Goldschmidt's work, on simple ionic compounds, AX 3 compounds, where X is
a halogen and on one of the forms of titanium dioxide, brookite, crystals in
which one is on the borderland between ionic and covalent structure. By an
interesting coincidence, Linus Pauling gave his first student, Sturdevant, the
structure of brookite to solve; it was published before the work of Bernal and
Martin was completed. Later Bernal gave a very beautiful crystal of palladium
sulphide (Braggite) he had picked out of a conglomerate from South Africa to a
long-vacation student, T. F. Gaskell. The structure, based on the j8-tungsten
lattice, has strongly covalent characteristics. By contrast he showed, in a little
piece of work carried out during a short visit to Moscow, that strontium and
barium dioxides were ionic, with individual peroxide ions in the lattice,
surrounding the positive ions. (You may not find all these structures listed
under Bernal's name — it was very characteristic of him to suggest a problem to
a student, and to help in finding the solution, but then to insist that the paper be
published in the student's name alone.)
The way in which one research led into others is illustrated very well by the
work of another early Ph.D. student, Helen Megaw. The structure of ice had just
been proposed by Barnes in the 1929 discussion. Bernal felt that its peculiarities
were worth further study and suggested to Helen Megaw, as a physicist, that
she might like to measure the thermal expansion of the crystals in different
directions. The research was experimentally taxing; it involved growing crystals
in fine walled capillaries at low and very carefully controlled temperatures and
making measurements with very high accuracy. Helen Megaw used an upgraded
version of the old gas tube for the purpose, so that she could change the anti-
cathode easily to obtain X-rays of different wavelengths. In 1934 Rutherford
gave Bernal some 91% pure D 2 from which Bernal and Megaw were able to
34 Biographical Memoirs
grow D 2 crystals and show that there was a very small decrease in the a and c
lattice constants of D 2 compared with H 2 0. He suggested in the Royal Society
discussion on heavy hydrogen that the shrinkage was due to zero point energy
and its effect on intermolecular forces and he extended his analysis later with
G. Tamm of the Physical Institute of the Academy of Sciences, Moscow, who
added a number of improvements of theory in the letter they published together.
Helen Megaw was anxious to learn how to solve a crystal structure in detail.
Bernal suggested she try hydrargillite, Al(OH) 3 , an AX 3 compound and a clay
mineral — clay minerals with layer structures were thought perhaps to play a
part in the origin of life. Pauling (who visited the laboratory in 1930) had
proposed a structure for hydrargillite based on linked oxygen octahedra. Megaw
found the structure was correct in outline but there were marked irregularities
in the octahedra which indicated that the oxygen atoms were drawn together
at contacts involving hydrogen, hydroxyl group to hydroxyl group, in fact,
with the O — H bond directed at approximately the tetrahedral angle to Al — O.
The situation was clearly similar to that found in the structure of water and ice,
according to ideas that Bernal had begun working on in collaboration with R. H.
Fowler. It was rather different from that proposed by Pauling and Huggins for
the hydrogen bond in the acid salts, such as potassium hydrogen fluoride or
sodium bicarbonate. Bernal and Megaw collected together all the crystallo-
graphic studies that had been made up to that time on metallic hydroxides.
They found that the force between the hydroxyl groups, judged by distance
and atomic arrangement, varied with the charge and size of the cations — the
effect was hardly visible with sodium. Bernal believed in distinguishing
'hydroxyl' bonds from hydrogen bonds as defined by Pauling and Huggins
though the distinction he made has not persisted in use. It is predominately
geometrical — that hydrogen bonds in acid salts, for example, involved shorter
oxygen — oxygen distances, 2.55 A in potassium dihydrogen phosphate, and the
bonding was confined between two oxygen atoms, with the hydrogen atom
possibly passing from one to the other. Hydroxyl groups he saw as providing a
continuing pattern of bonds linking many molecules together, alcohols, for
example, which could be of great importance in the formation of gels and in
Bernal came across long chain alcohols in another connection, the study of
crystal optics in relation to symmetry and structure. Hendricks had found that a
series of long chain amino chlorides — C 3 -C 9 — were tetragonal and showed
uniaxial symmetry — which could be fitted with the idea of zigzag carbon chains
if, as Pauling had suggested, the chains were rotating in the crystal. Bernal
found that as the chain length increased, the crystals did indeed become biaxial
suggesting stationary chains. He then discovered a very beautiful example,
hexadecylol, which crystallized from the melt at 24 °C in uniaxial hexagonal
John Desmond Bernal 35
plates, two molecules in the unit cell, a =4.76 A, C=34 A. The molecules were
clearly end to end, hydroxyl group to hydroxyl group, but rotating. At 16° the
crystals transformed into a very different form, monoclinic, with the molecules
clearly arranged in layers, again double, inclined to one another. Bernal found
himself looking for other systems where order was partial, liquid crystals of
different varieties, and the crystalline phases that preceded the formation of
liquid crystals. In several of these, p azoxyanisole and phenetole, cholesteryl
chloride and bromide, it was possible to find evidence that the molecules could
slide a little parallel to one another in one direction in the crystal, the direction
of a long axis in the molecule. The evidence was provided by diffuse scattering —
'smear' lines — along certain lines on the X-ray photographs correlated with the
long axis direction. These molecules formed nematic liquid crystals. In the one
crystal examined which gave rise to a smectic liquid crystal the long molecules
present were arranged in layers which could slide over one another.
It was always Bernal's hope to work out in detail the crystal structures he
looked at, but as they became more complicated, the solution became more
difficult. Like others, he saw the comparison of isomorphous crystals as the
most hopeful route to try. Since he and R. H. Fowler were very much interested
in the piezo-electric properties of Rochelle salt (? moving hydrogen atoms) he
had made a crystal with thallium substituted for potassium. I took some
Weissenberg photographs of these for him but neither one of us found time to
work on them; the problem passed through various hands to C. A. Beevers in
Edinburgh. Rather more work was done on cholesteryl chloride and bromide
but these structures have only been fully solved in three dimensions in the last
two years by Kalyani Vijayan.
Short of complete structure analysis Bernal felt that every stage of crystallo-
graphic study might supply some useful chemical information, particularly if
combined with optical studies — characterization and identification, molecular
weight determination, estimation of the size and shape and forces between
molecules packed in crystals. He started himself with a survey of amino acid
crystals, as the building blocks of proteins and appealed to his friends to send
him for study, crystals however small (0-01 mm or more) of the remarkable
substances they were isolating. So Pirie sent him crystals of glutathione, and
Windaus and Tchesche, Jansen and Donath and Peters sent him preparations
of Vitamin B x hydrochloride: others sent a. crocetin with j8 carotene and
hexuronic acid and there were many more. He made many useful small
observations. In four fields his researches proved particularly fruitful — these it
seems worth while discussing individually: sterols and sex hormones, proteins,
viruses, water and the structure of liquids.
Work multiplied so much in Cambridge that Bernal began seriously to need
more space and hands and money. When he himself retired in 1931, Professor
Hutchinson recommended that two professors be appointed in his place, one of
Mineralogy and one of Crystallography. Unfortunately, after considerable
discussion, the project was voted down. C. E. Tilley was appointed Professor
of Mineralogy, to be housed in the new laboratory, Bernal was promoted to be
36 Biographical Memoirs
Assistant Director of Research. Crystallography was transferred to the Cavendish
Laboratory in name but physically left in the same space. Bernal found
conditions increasingly cramped. Fortunately in 1937 there was a general
professorial move; W. L. Bragg moved from Manchester to the National
Physical Laboratory. P. M. S. Blackett moved from Birkbeck College to
Manchester and J. D. Bernal was in 1937 offered and accepted the chair of
Physics at Birkbeck College, London. Apart from the war years, Bernal remained
at Birkbeck for the rest of his working life. So, much of the work in the major
fields to be next described was split between Cambridge and Birkbeck.
Sterols and sex hormones
Conversations with Bernal on the usefulness of crystallography led Solly
Zuckerman and J. B. S. Haldane, independently, within a few days of one
another in 1931, to suggest that he should work on newly isolated crystals of the
sex hormone, ketohydroxy oestrin, and of Vitamin D 2 , calciferol. Practically
nothing was known of the sex hormone, not even its empirical formula.
Calciferol, on the other hand, was derived from ergosterol by irradiation and
ergosterol was closely related to cholesterol and the bile acids (exactly how was
not known) formulae for which had been put forward by Wieland and Windaus
Zuckerman has described how he took Bernal to University College London,
to visit Marrian, who very reluctantly gave him a few crystals of ketohydroxy
oestrin; the best of these had dimensions 1 mm x 0.1 mm x 0.005 mm; Bernal
measured both unit cell dimensions from X-ray photographs and also the crystal
optics. The crystals were small monoclinic plates with b, the long axis, 22 A,
parallel with the y refractive index; the intensities of the X-ray reflexions
suggested an approximate halving of this axis and the negative birefringence
favoured a structure based on condensed rings. Bernal suggested molecular
dimensions of 1 1 A x 7.5 A x 4.2 A and further that the hydroxyl and keto
groups were likely to be at opposite ends of the molecule. Measurements on
crystals of trihydroxyoestrin sent by Dr Marrian on 3 March 1932 were almost
identical. Bernal compared his results with data on anthracene and phenanthrene
— he felt the molecules of the sex hormones were more like phenanthrene with a
few attached atoms. Curiously he did not immediately see how the sex hormone
crystals could be related to pregnandiol, which he also measured.
The calciferol problem, at first sight, seemed likely to be less taxing. In
1930-31, groups led by Windaus at Gottingen and Rosenheim and King at the
National Institute for Medical Research, Hampstead, had both isolated from the
irradiation products of ergosterol crystals which had antirachitic activity. The
Windaus preparation, called Vitamin D lf subsequently proved to be a molecular
complex of lumisterol and calciferol which was later isolated by Windaus as
Vitamin D 2 . The first M.R.C. active preparation proved to be a mixture of
pyrocalciferol, an inactive isomer, and calciferol. The M.R.C. group was
John Desmond Bernal 37
anxious for additional evidence that the calciferol they had subsequently
separated, now highly biologically active, was indeed a single chemical
individual ; Haldane suggested they ask for a crystallographic study.
Bernal found from his first X-ray measurements on calciferol that the crystallo-
graphy was very complicated. There were four molecules of the expected size
in the asymmetric unit, which might or might not be chemically the same as one
another. He obtained additional sterol crystals for comparison — ergosterol,
a dihydroergosterol ^EtOH, pyrocalciferol — calciferol, lumisterol and choles-
terol. Of the six, a-dihydroergosterol JEtOH and cholesterol were more
complicated than calciferol. He did not even try to complete the lattice constant
measurements for cholesterol — in his laboratory notes, on the same page as those
on pregnandiol, he records, that the crystals are triclinic.
Pyrocalciferol — calciferol however could be easily interpreted to give the
answer; the crystal symmetry required the presence of two molecules of the
ergosterol size, i.e. one of pyrocalciferol and one of calciferol. Bernal was
therefore able to deduce, as desired, that calciferol was a single chemical
individual which had adopted a complicated type of packing in the crystal.
Bernal went further. He realized that in spite of geometrical complexities all
the sterol crystals were very similar, monoclinic plates or laths of a long chain
paraffinoid type. From their optics, positive birefringence, y much inclined to
the main plane, he could deduce that the molecules themselves had the
approximate dimensions, 5 A x 7.2 A x 17-20 A, long and thin, and formed
double layers similar to those of long chain acids and alcohols, i.e. the hydroxy 1
groups must be at one end of the molecules. According to John Phil pot, a
member of the M.R.C. team at Hampstead, he told them straight away that the
Windaus-Wieland formula could not possibly be correct. His published remarks
were a little more cautious. He said the molecular dimensions he found were
'difficult to reconcile with the usually accepted sterol formula F.
There were already misgivings among sterol chemists about details of
formula I. Bernal's views forced very much more radical rethinking of the whole
interpretation of sterol chemistry by the different groups involved. Rosenheim
and King took as their clue the isolation by O. Diels, through dehydrogenation
of cholesterol and other sterols by selenium, of certain aromatic hydrocarbons,
chrysene together with hydrocarbons formulated C 18 H 16 and C 25 H 2 2 of un-
known structure. Rosenheim and King's first radical proposal was to substitute
a reduced chrysene nucleus for the Wieland-Windaus nucleus, placing the
hydroxyl group and side chain at opposite ends of the molecule II. Bernal's
letter to Rosenheim, in reply to this suggestion, is a little hesitant. He agrees
that his own evidence 'is rather strongly in favour of the new formula', but is
worried about the chemical evidence, for five membered rings particularly at
ring II, summarized in the 1927 Annual Report of the Chemical Society.
Rosenheim replied that he had been worried himself until he had read again the
original papers of Windaus and decided that the evidence was non-existent. So
the new ideas were published in May 1932. They immediately enabled Bernal
to relate his observations on the sex hormones with those on the sterols and to
see that the sex hormones corresponded with the sterol ring system less side
chain and that pregnandiol formed a link between them.
Others re-examined sterol chemistry in the same period. Many years later,
Professor Elizabeth Dane told me that there came one evening when she and
Professor Wieland began to see the correct answer. She took their papers home
for the night, saying that she thought by the morning she would be able to
give him a complete interpretation of their evidence. She returned in the
morning with the answer in her hand to find Professor Wieland reading a letter
from England, giving the new proposals. Wieland and Dane's formulation
required essentially the same transformation of sterol chemistry as Rosenheim
and King's, but they kept the five-membered structure of ring IV, D, as in
formula III. Rosenheim and King readily conceded the correctness of this
view — which was equally consistent with Bernal's measurements. Wieland and
Dane's paper was rapidly submitted for publication on 13 July 1932.
John Desmond Bernal
A first check on the nature of ring D of the sterol skeleton seemed possible
through the study of the Diels hydrocarbon, C 18 H 16 . As this was produced in
greater yield and at rather lower temperatures than chrysene, IV, it seemed
likely to be the primary product of the dehydrogenation reaction. It was therefore
formulated as most probably either 1 : 2 cyclopentenophenanthrene, C 17 H U V
or y-methyl 1 : 2 cyclopentenophenanthrene VI. A synthetic specimen of
C 17 H 14 made by Cook and Hewitt was easily distinguished crystallographically
from Diels C 18 H 16 ; two synthetic preparations of y methylcyclopentenophenan-
threne, prepared by Bergmann and Hillemann and Harper, Kon and Ruzicka,
and sent to Bernal presented more difficulties. All three preparations formed
orthorhombic crystals, practically identical in unit cell dimensions and limited
X-ray reflexions but differing in habit and in the melting point of certain
addition compounds. It seemed most likely that these differences were due to
traces of different impurities in the three specimens and it is now generally
agreed that Diels C 18 H 16 is ymethylcyclopentenophenanthrene.
The recognition of the correct formula for the sterols brought very rapid
advances and the checking up on many still doubtful details in sterol chemistry
in much of which Bernal was involved. In 1934 Ruzicka and his co-workers
degraded epidihydrocholesterol to the male sex hormone, androsterone, and
Butenandt et al. and Fernholz degraded stigmasterone to progesterone. Oestrone
itself was readily formulated as VII. The identity of natural androsterone and
that prepared by sterol degradation was checked by Bernal crystallographically.
Again much of the cholesterol stereochemistry, and particularly the trans
character of the junction between rings A and B was clear from the first X-ray
measurements, strengthened by observations Bernal made on trans hexahydro-
chrysene. The distinction of the side chains of the different groups of
phytosterols was assisted by measurements on the molecular weights of the
higher Diels hydrocarbons by the X-ray method. The cardiac aglucones, though
chemically more complex, fitted in between sterols and sex hormones.
40 Biographical Memoirs
Then, on 18 June 1935, Professor Windaus wrote to Bernal from Gottingen
I u Cm
c\ ^ c c
It was a great shock to Bernal. Calciferol had seemed to him to be rather
different from ergosterol but still likely to have the same essential molecular
shape. It was the similarity of the crystals of the six sterols he had at first
examined that had impressed him most. He pointed out that a molecule with the
formula proposed by Windaus would be expected to have a wholly different
shape — extended as in VIII. In the calciferol crystal at least one molecule would
have to be folded up in what seemed a quite improbable (though not actually
impossible) way, IX, in order to occupy the same sort of space as pyrocalciferol
in the very closely related calciferol-pyrocalciferol crystal. Rosenheim and King
suggested an alternative structure for calciferol with a break in the sterol
skeleton between rings A and B (X). It seemed rather better for the crystallo-
graphic relations but difficult to fit with most of the chemistry. Bernal wrote
very hesitantly to Windaus.
'I am still uncertain about the formula of the compound and find it almost
equally difficult to agree with your formula or Rosenheim's.'
Since Bernal did not totally rule out his formula for calciferol, Windaus went
ahead and published it.
It has taken many years to settle for certain the conclusions on sterol chemistry
and stereochemistry reached so rapidly in three years after Bernal's first pre-
liminary X-ray measurements. Chemical synthesis and detailed X-ray analysis
John Desmond Bernal 41
were necessary. A first view of the sterol skeleton on its side, confirming its
lath like character and the positions of the projecting methyl groups, was
obtained as early as 1936 from the isomorphous cholesteryl chloride and bromide.
The view onto the plane of the ring system of cholesterol in cholesteryl iodide
and a limited three-dimensional electron density distribution showed the stereo-
chemical form of cholesterol complete and particularly the five-membered ring,
in 1945. 6 That calciferol readily adopted an extended stereochemical conforma-
tion as in VIII, was shown by the complete X-ray analysis of the 3-iodo 5 nitro
benzoate of calciferol in 1948, 7 that its conformation might vary appeared in the
analysis of 3.20-bis(ethylene dioxy) calciferol in 1972. 8 Only five years ago
X-ray methods advanced far enough to establish the much more complicated
atomic arrangement in crystals of calciferol itself. Curiously enough, the crystal
actually prepared and solved by Hull, Leban, Main, White & Woolfson 9 was a
polymorph of Bernal's original crystal, rather more like pyrocalciferol-calciferol
with two molecules of calciferol, not four in the asymmetric unit. These two
molecules prove to be very different from one another in shape, one extended
and one curled up to simulate a more normal sterol. The A ring itself has two
different conformations with the 3-OH group equatorial in the one molecule
and erect in the other. So Bernal's view that only a curled conformation for one
of the calciferol molecules could explain both the crystallographic data and
Windaus's observations was quite correct, improbable as it seemed to him at the
Both Astbury and Bernal first became interested in the problem of the
structure of proteins at the Davy-Faraday laboratory. Astbury took fibre photo-
graphs for Sir William Bragg's lectures of wool and silk and W. H. George,
who came in 1925, tried to obtain powder photographs from microcrystalline
samples of edestin, insulin and haemoglobin ; he only obtained obscure diffuse
bands which puzzled him. When in 1927-28 Bernal and Astbury parted — Bernal
to Cambridge, Astbury a year later to Leeds — they corresponded frequently,
about their problems in setting up research groups, getting money, organising
the International tables, writing a draft textbook for Sir William that was never
published, and most of all, about the investigation of proteins.
From his conversations with Cambridge biochemists Bernal decided he should
begin to work on amino acids and obtained a number of crystals. Astbury
(26 March 1930) wrote a little worried by the news since he had already collected
specimens of almost all the amino acids found in hair and thought to give them
to his D.Phil, students ' — you know quite well — that there is no one with whom I
should be so pleased to join forces. . . . But if I send these amino acids on to you,
will you harden your ridiculously soft heart and stop doing odd jobs for other
people ?' Bernal was in no condition to give any such guarantees but he did
nevertheless himself make a first series of measurements and attempt suggestions
42 Biographical Memoirs
for the solution of the crystal structures of eight of the simple amino acids,
diketopiperazine and some glycine peptides. On 13 January 1933, Astbury
wrote 'I am writing to tell you about a photo of "crystalline pepsin" which I have
just obtained. I got it from Northrop in America, together with some
"crystalline" trypsin' (pepsin had been first crystallized in 1930). The crystals
of pepsin were small, dry, hexagonal bipyramids, optically positive. The
photograph, essentially a powder photograph, showed only two broad rings,
4| A and 10 A spacing, from which Astbury deduced that essentially straight
peptide chains must be present, perhaps fractionated to a single length in
accordance with the molecular mass '34 500, by osmotic methods.'
Astbury ends — T also want you to use your powers of persuasion on the
biochemical people to get me some more "crystalline" proteins such as
ovalbumin, insulin and haemoglobin. I understand that Adair is the bloke' . . .
'Can you give me any references or information about previous X-ray photos or
ordinary crystallographic measurements of crystalline proteins ? . . . I am under
the impression that (1) no one has hitherto obtained an X-ray photo that they
could make any sense out of and (2) that the law of rational indices is obeyed
but that the axial ratios are variable. ... I apologise in advance for inflicting
this long letter on you, if only you will make a desperate effort to answer it and get
me some more proteins. ,'
Bernal, no doubt, repeated requests to his friends and they bore fruit from
an unexpected quarter. In the spring of 1934 John Philpot was in Uppsala,
isolating, purifying and crystallizing pepsin. From his first research appointment
at Hampstead, helping to isolate vitamin D, he had moved to Oxford, to Balliol
College and the Biochemistry Department. They planned to instal there an
ultracentrifuge to help with work on proteins, and sent John Philpot to Uppsala
to learn the necessary techniques. He left his pepsin crystallizing in the
refrigerator while on a short skiing holiday and found on his return beautiful
large crystals, 2 mm long, which he showed to a passing visitor, Glenn Millikan,
from Cambridge. Millikan, a close friend of Bernal's, said "I know a man in
Cambridge who would give his eyes for those crystals.' Philpot, who also knew
Bernal from the sterol studies, gladly gave him a tube of crystals still in their
mother liquor which he carried back with him.
Bernal at first removed a crystal from the tube, allowed it to dry, passed
X-rays through it, and recorded even less scattering than Astbury — a vague
blur. He realized from the appearance of the crystal in the microscope that it had
lost order. So he took one of the fine Lindemann glass tubes made for Helen
Megaw's ice crystals and drew a new pepsin crystal into it, surrounded by its
mother liquor, sealing the tube with a very small flame. The photographs that
followed, taken on a 3 cm radius camera, were covered with X-ray reflexions,
rather large and blurred, but on well defined lines. It was easy to measure one
lattice constant, a =67 A of the hexagonal crystal; the other was clearly much
longer, confused by overlapping reflexions. Bernal gave it as probably 154 A
from the observed axial ratio, 2.3; and suggested somewhat hesitatingly, the
presence of twelve molecules of molecular mass 40 000 (Svedberg's figure), in the
John Desmond Bernal 43
unit since the crystals also appeared to contain about 50% water. The c axis is,
in fact, 292 A long, found much later by Perutz, and the crystal unit does contain
both 50% water and twelve pepsin molecules, as required by the space group.
Bernal immediately told Astbury and they published letters to Nature
together, describing their very different results and speculating on protein
structures. Bernal was sure from the intensities of the reflexions he saw that the
pepsin molecule had a perfectly definite structure and shape — probably an
oblate spheroid, 25 A x 35 A, and that the molecules were arranged in hexagonal
nets and separated by water from one another. He did not observe the periodicities
characterizing fibrous proteins and thought therefore that peptide chains might
form on drying since Astbury was convinced from his photographs that
essentially straight peptide chains were present in the dried crystals. The
correct resolution of their differences became clear as other protein crystals
were examined. A number of pepsin photographs were obtained in the summer
of 1934, mostly by myself. But further work on interpretation was abandoned
owing to the practical difficulties presented by the very long c axis.
In the next four years X-ray measurements on single crystals were made of
five different proteins, insulin and lactoglobulin (Crowfoot and Riley) at Oxford,
excelsin (Astbury, Dickinson and Bailey) at Leeds, chymotrypsin and haemo-
globin (Bernal, Fankuchen and Perutz) at Cambridge. Since Bernal and I were
then separated and for a time Bernal himself was ill with jaundice in London,
excited letters to Bernal, kept to this day, record each new development. The
first photographs of insulin were taken of crystals which had been allowed to
dry, since little loss of birefringence had been observed on drying; the crystals
were somewhat disordered but gave sufficient X-ray reflexions to permit, for
the first time, the measurement of the mass of protein in the unit cell, a very
much smaller cell than that of pepsin. The excelsin crystal was accidentally
allowed to dry during photography at Leeds. Only with lactoglobulin was the
procedure first adopted of photographing the crystals first wet and then carefully
dried, a procedure followed with both chymotrypsin and haemoglobin. It was
clear then that it was the shrinking and swelling of the crystals that had given
rise to the old observations Astbury had enquired after, 'of varying axial ratios'
(Bernal found them for him particularly in Schimper's paper of 1881.) 10
Fankuchen and Perutz, who came to work with Bernal in 1935 and 1936
respectively, were very different from one another. Fankuchen, who had come
as a poor Jewish student from Brooklyn to Cornell where he worked for a time
as assistant to Bragg on his book on the structure of minerals, was very warm-
hearted, outgoing and pugnacious, and he knew a great deal of crystallography.
Bragg had taken him first to Manchester where he began some work on sterols;
this led to conversations with Bernal and his transfer to Cambridge. The plan
was that he would take over work left behind by myself. Max Perutz was younger,
more diffident, trained in Vienna where Ernest Spath was Professor of Organic
Chemistry and Hermann Mark of Physical Chemistry. He himself has told how
he decided that he would like to take a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Cambridge
with Hopkins, how Mark, whom he had asked to intercede for him, forgot to
44 Biographical Memoirs
ask Hopkins, but, fired with his own excitement over Bernal's pepsin photo-
graphs, sent him instead to work with Bernal, saying, when he protested his
ignorance, 'you can learn crystallography'. Perutz served an uneasy apprentice-
ship for a year working on a simpler mineral structure before he could follow
his own desires and ask Adair for haemoglobin — beautiful crystals from which
he took the most beautiful protein X-ray photographs yet seen. At much the same
time large chymotrypsin crystals were sent from Kunitz which also gave excellent
X-ray photographs. There seems for a short time to have been a little competition
between the two young men about who owned protein crystals — until Fankuchen
was taken over almost wholly by work on tobacco mosaic virus. They write
characteristically different letters. One of Fankuchen's, dated only Tuesday
8.15 p.m. begins:
1. A letter from Birkbeck which might be important,
2. Our report on chymotrypsin to date: if you want to cable Northrop
you now have most of necessary data
3. Perutz's work on haemoglobin
I developed the photograph (of TMV) taken at 15 cms with cobalt
radiation. ... It looks as though our suspicions of its single 2-dimensional
crystal nature are completely confirmed. . . .
When do you think you will be back in Cambridge. It's too exciting here
for you to stay in bed: Cheerio, Fan.'
Max Perutz's letter, a few days later, begins more formally, 'Dear Mr.Bernal',
is properly dated, 20.12.37, and gives the full crystal data on wet haemoglobin
with an estimated water content of 0-306 based on Adair's protein molecular
weight. It ends
'Please let me know if there are any special photographs you want to
have taken as I cannot hold back the 4 cameras very much longer against
the claims of Wells and Knott.
Yours sincerely, Max'.
The X-ray photographs of wet and air dried crystals showed that the protein
molecules were essentially unchanged by loss of water from the crystals. Some
relative movement of units was possible but nothing extensive, the intensity
patterns were essentially similar. How to interpret these intensities in terms
of the structure seemed to us at once our immediate problem and out of our
range. My first letter to Bernal (or rather to Eileen since he was ill) about the
insulin unit cell was dated 17 February 1935. In a few days he replied from
London, having looked up the literature :
John Desmond Bernal 45
Dear Dorothy, 110 Heath Street
Zn 0.52 wt. per cent.
Cd 0.77 wt. per cent.
Co 0.44 wt. per cent.
This gives slightly less than 3 in all cases. Nothing is said about the method
of drying but they are certainly called dry.
I will send you the cadmium stuff as soon as I get back to Cambridge.'
It was clear that he was thinking of the possibilities of changing zinc in the
crystal for heavier metals and using the change to find the phase angles necessary
for the direct calculation of an electron density map of insulin — the method of
isomorphous replacement. My reply, dated 15 March, describes experiments on
trying to grow cadmium insulin crystals — unfortunately the precipitate, under
the conditions used earlier, was largely amorphous and flocculent — perhaps the
material was too impure. However, one further follow-up attempt was made,
on 28 March. I visited Harington and Neuberger to discuss how much was
known about the amino acid composition of insulin (far from complete) and
whether there were any reactions, such as iodination, that would introduce a
heavy atom into the molecule. The conclusions were discouraging — known
reactions led to substitution at a number of sites, chemical data on the molecule
were very incomplete. However, they produced another crystalline protein they
thought more hopeful, lactoglobulin.
Bernal's second idea of how to discover more about the structure of proteins
was based on another approach to the phenomena of X-ray diffraction of
crystals which became familiar in the 1930s largely through the work of Ewald
and Patterson. In these terms the scattering pattern was viewed as the Fourier
transform of the unit cell as a whole, which could only be sampled at points
permitted by the reciprocal lattice. In the case of certain simple molecular
crystals the contents of the unit cell might be a single molecule and the transform
describable as the molecular structure factor. Of Bernal's students, George
Knott had been given the assignment of examining the calculation of molecular
structure factors of benzene derivatives and considering the use that might be
made of them in structure analysis. They proved in fact very helpful in placing
molecules of known structure in crystals; where they failed was with unknown
structures, there being at first sight no means of deciding whether maxima and
minima observed in X-ray diffraction effects were positive or negative. Bernal
saw that it would be possible to use the variation of the intensities seen in wet and
dry proteins to follow the shape of the transform and so to obtain some direct
evidence of phase relations from the crystal, swelling and shrinking. Perutz
showed in the next few years that this method did work, but it could only
operate in a very limited way, shrinking in the haemoglobin crystals being
marked in one direction only.
It was natural in the meantime to speculate on possible arrangements of the
amino acids in proteins and to try to relate these to the intensities observed for
the X-ray reflexions from their crystals. A number of structures were proposed
46 Biographical Memoirs
of which the ones most fully worked out were the cyclol structures of Dorothy
Wrinch. Bernal had himself taken part in conversations with Dorothy Wrinch
which led to the proposal of these structures. But calculations, which he
encouraged, of either the transform of a cyclol or the associated Patterson vector
map, showed that even limited agreement with the X-ray data would only be
obtained by special weighting of regions within the system. Bernal tried to build
theories on some of these regions — that there were small sub-units packed within
the molecules, based on rings of amino acids, for example. The basis for all such
speculations vanished as work progressed on the chemical structure of the
molecules, the sequence of amino acid residues in peptide chains.
The war in 1939 interrupted Bernal's own work on proteins and indeed most
other work, apart from a little by Perutz on haemoglobin and a little at Oxford
on insulin. After the war, the organization of serious research began again,
particularly at Cambridge with Bragg and Perutz, at Birkbeck with Bernal and
Carlisle, Brooklyn Polytechnic with Harker and Fankuchen, California Institute
of Technology with Pauling and Corey. All realized that there had to be
developments in the accurate intensity measurement of many reflexions and in
the growth of large computers. The possibility of a solution still waited for the
critical discovery by Max Perutz in 1953 of a heavy atom derivative, the
p-mercuribenzoate of haemoglobin, capable of providing the phase relations.
Within two weeks of his discovery, Perutz had calculated the first two-
dimensional electron density projection of haemoglobin. The first calculation of
the three-dimensional electron density in a protein, myoglobin, capable of
showing the actual arrangement of the atoms in the peptide chains, followed
slowly but automatically, made by Perutz's student, John Kendrew, with many
helpers in Cambridge in 1960. Similar calculations for haemoglobin still took a
few more years. In 1967, Bragg wrote to Bernal:
'I spent yesterday in Cambridge to see Perutz' high-resolution solution
of haemoglobin. I think he has already shown it to you* — 30 years after you
and he got the first photographs !
I marvel that these solutions are possible although several have now
come out. It seems so amazing that diffraction effects should reveal the
positions of individual groups of atoms in such a maze.'
Tobacco Mosaic Virus and other viruses
In 1935 Stanley described the preparation of crystals of a protein having the
properties of tobacco mosaic virus from virus infected plants. Bawden and Pirie
had already obtained highly active preparations of tobacco mosaic virus which
were in many respects closely similar to Stanley's preparations. They were
precipitated by ammonium sulphate to form birefringent needles, which however
seemed not to be clearly crystalline and they contained a small amount of ribo-
nucleic acid not at first observed by Stanley. Bawden and Pirie brought their
* Max Perutz took the entire stack of the 2-8 A electron density map to Bernal, by then too ill to
move. He was thrilled to see it.
John Desmond Bernal 47
preparation to Bernal in 1936 and together with Fankuchen they made a
marvellous series of observations which established degrees of order of different
kinds within the infective material, of liquid crystalline, but not three
dimensional crystalline, character. These observations were made possible by
various ingenious technical improvements developed by Fankuchen, crystal
monochromators to give fine strong X-ray beams, plates at a distance of 40 cm
from the specimen to measure long spacings, specimen holders for wet prepara-
tions, tubes through which liquid could be pumped during X-ray photography.
Neutral aqueous solutions of the virus on standing separated into a series of
phases which were called by Bernal top layer, bottom layer, and dry gel; all
were anisotropic except the top layer which was opalescent and showed flow
birefringence under the microscope between crossed nicols (see plate 1). The
lower anisotropic solution showed a number of positive and negative tactoid
forms, characteristic of liquid crystals containing long molecules. In this phase
X-ray diffraction measurements showed that the long molecules were regularly
packed in two dimensions in a hexagonal close packed array; the distance
between them varied with the concentration continuously from 152 A, the
separation observed in the dried gel, to 500 A. The phenomena indicated the
presence of long molecules, 152 A across, which maintained parallel alignment
over large distances in the solution to fill space evenly. In the direction of the
particle length no order corresponding with particles of definite length in
regular step with one another could be observed. However, other features, the
relation between top layer solutions, where the orientation of the particles was
disordered, and the ordered bottom layer, or the size and shape of the tactoids,
suggested the particles might have definite lengths, about ten times their widths,
and might possibly associate loosely, end to end, in solution.
A new set of observations was made when either acid or concentrated salt
such as ammonium sulphate was added to the solution; the particles formed
tactoids and adopted a definite interparticle distance depending on the pH or
salt concentration. Shaking the solution in which the oriented tactoids formed
caused them to coalesce, the whole would set solid to a gel, in the body of which
large volumes of water were trapped. The equilibrium distance of the particles
in these gels was a little larger, 173 A, than the distance in the dried gel, as if
a water layer characteristic of pH and salt concentration, surrounded the virus
Another phenomenon was observed by Bernal when the bottom layer solution
was flowing through narrow tubes. By gentle tapping or stroking he could cause
it to show a banded structure in polarized light, reminiscent of the striations in
muscle, but here produced by the long molecules adopting a reverse spiral
method of packing. This had been observed with other liquid crystalline sols.
Besides X-ray reflexions of long spacing observed close to the main beam,
the diffraction pattern of all tobacco mosaic preparations showed a wide angle
X-ray pattern which did not vary with concentration and was full of detail,
clearly an indication of a high degree of order within the virus particle. It still
was not the three dimensional order of a crystal. It varied somewhat with the
48 Biographical Memoirs
different strains of virus studied as might be expected, cucumber, potato X,
corresponding with expected differences in atomic arrangement. Bernal
attempted to derive a possible spiral or close packed arrangement of subunits,
flat platelets 44Ax44Ax22A within the particle. But he noticed that strong
planes suggested an even more pronounced roughly equidimensional subgroup
of 11 A each way. He commented 'in this respect it [TMV] resembles the
fibrous or denatured proteins and may like them have a simpler structure than
the crystalline proteins'.
The X-ray diffraction patterns observed by Bernal and Fankuchen of the dry
gel proved practically identical with those obtained by Wyckoff from Stanley's
preparations — it seemed most likely that Stanley's first needles were thin tactoids
in Bernal's terms. The very minute crystals observed in tobacco mosaic virus
infected plants are generally of a rather different character, flat plates, still not
large enough for X-ray structure analysis. But crystals of other viruses soon
appeared. Bernal with Fankuchen and Riley took the first X-ray photographs of
one of them, tomato bushy stunt virus in 1938, again prepared by Bawden and
Pirie, in the form of isotropic rhombic dodecahedra, diameter about 0.01 mm.
The photograph was necessarily a powder photograph, though of wet crystals,
and showed at first only two lines. With a pair of dividers and a ruler on the wet
film, in great excitement, Bernal measured these lines and, assuming as was
likely from the form of the crystal (Fedorow's rule), that the lattice was cubic
body centred, deduced a cubic unit cell of edge 390 A, containing two particles
of diameter 340 A and a molecular mass of the order of 10 000 000. After the
war Pirie grew large crystals of this virus and Carlisle and Dornberger took
single crystal photographs of them in Bernal's laboratory; they were able to
show that cubic symmetry persisted to near atomic dimensions.
One of Bernal's major post war achievements at Birkbeck was to gather
together enough money to support a very remarkable group of young people
who could face the tremendous problem of the structure analysis of viruses —
Rosalind Franklin, Aaron Klug, J. T. Finch and K. C. Holmes. Before her
death Rosalind Franklin was able to map directly, by the use of methyl mercury
derivatives, an outline structure of the tobacco mosaic virus, protein subunits in
a helix surrounding an empty hole down the centre of the rod. 11 The RNA
could be placed approximately within the protein, near the outer edge of the
hole. In the last few years the subunits have been shown to consist of four
stretches of a a helical protein chain, about 11 A long and 11 A across; 12 - 13 work
is still in progress at Heidelberg on TMV itself by Holmes and at Cambridge
by Klug and Bloomer on the crystalline TMV coat protein to show the atomic
positions within them. Other remarkable viruses surveyed by the Birkbeck
group in the 1950s included turnip yellow virus, turnip crinkle virus and polio
virus. Turnip yellow virus was, in fact, first studied by Bernal and Carlisle in
1947 from powder photographs of crystals sent by Roy Markham. These showed
that the unit cell edge was about 700 A and that the cubic structure persisted in
RNA-free, non-infective crystals. Much later Klug and Finch took further single
crystal photographs which showed the icosahedral symmetry of these crystals
John Desmond Bernal 49
and of the virus particles. Klug and Caspar developed a theory of the quasi-
regular packing of subunits over the surface of the spherical viruses, which
greatly delighted Bernal. Each of the spherical viruses studied at Birkbeck
belonged to the class with n x 60 subunits, arranged in groups of twelve round
five-fold axes. The enormous work of collecting and measuring all the observable
X-ray reflexions from one of these viruses — the bushy stunt virus — has been
undertaken at Harvard during the last few years, very simply, if very laboriously,
on |° oscillation photographs. Already an electron density distribution at 2.9 A
has been calculated and parts of the protein chain are clear. 14
Bernal himself was fascinated — and fascinated others — by the observations
made by himself and Fankuchen on the ordered arrangements of tobacco mosaic
virus particles observed in solution. These suggested the presence of apparently
long range forces between them. In fact the explanation of similar effects in clay
minerals, proposed by Langmuir and Levine, that they were due to the ionic
atmosphere surrounding the long particles in ionic media, was found to fit the
observations reasonably well. The kind of order detected in the TMV system
provided a very good explanation of some of the phenomena of gel formation
and particularly of thixotropic gels. Bernal speculated further that reversed
spirals might provide a mechanism for the contraction of muscle — which has
proved not in fact to be the case — and that tactoid formation might be a model
for the appearance of the spindle during the process of cell division. In 1939 the
electron microscope was just beginning to be introduced to look at biological
material and so to check some of his conclusions and ideas. Tobacco mosaic
virus was one of the first objects examined by Kausche, Pfankuch and Ruska;
there, in their electron microscope pictures were the rods, as Bernal and
Fankuchen had deduced, of varying length composed of units 1500 A long, of
ordered packing, side by side, rather disarranged by drying, with large volumes
of water trapped between the ordered strands.
It was one of the small sad casualties of war that Kausche did not come with
his virus photographs as expected to the 7th International Genetics Congress
in Edinburgh at the beginning of September 1939. Soon afterwards Bernal
himself was called away for war research ; Fankuchen went back to America with
the text of the virus paper, to be published eventually after a great deal of
difficulty on account of its length in the Journal of General Physiology,
where from time to time, it is rediscovered by those concerned with liquid
In a letter to Astbury, 24 July 1937, Bernal describes intermolecular
photographs of bacteriophage 'which gives a rather unusual type of protein
photograph'. Also, 'the most interesting thing . . . nucleic acid, which I have
got in fibre form and which shows very strong negative birefringence and rather
a peculiar photograph with a particularly strong line at 11 A and another at
4.5 A with a fibre spacing at some multiple of 3.3 A'. Astbury replied, 'I was
rather amused at your getting a fibre photograph of nucleic acid. I got a similar
photograph 3 or 4 years ago from a specimen which I received from Schmidt, and
I have been thinking of investigating it in more detail now with regard to the
50 Biographical Memoirs
chromosome business'. Bernal also thought he saw some of the nucleic acid
lines on the phage photograph.
Water and the structure of liquids
In September 1932 Bernal was invited to take part in some theoretical
discussions planned for physicists and chemists at the School of Physical
Chemistry in Moscow. Among the speakers were Born, Heitler, London,
Frenkel, Kurtschatov, Landau, Bloch, R. H. Fowler and Tamm. It was the
first time that Bernal had come closely into contact with leading Soviet scientists,
and he found the experience very stimulating, particularly his meeting with
Frenkel, with whom he discussed many of the problems of the solid and liquid
states. After a few days seeing laboratories and other sights, the British group
set out to return home by air — they had come by sea to Leningrad. R. H.
Fowler and Bernal arrived at the airport, as directed, at 4 o'clock in the morning
to find there was a thick fog; nothing could move. The airport was new, nowhere
to eat or even sit. They walked up and down, talking at first, as Bernal said, of
this and that, and then of science and then of the mist, why did the drops of
water form ? — and Fowler who was interested in thermodynamics and the
liquid state asked Bernal what was known about the structure of water that
would account for its behaviour. So Bernal began to tell him about the structure
of the water molecule, its angular form, its dipolar character, and he began to
think as he talked, that everything should follow from this structure, the crystal
structure of ice, its looseness, the extra force of attraction between water
molecules compared with other small molecules which led to its assuming the
liquid state; that there should be generally four molecules tetrahedrally
surrounding one water molecule in water as in ice — but somehow modified, as
the water structure was rather more dense. And suddenly it occurred to him that
an arrangement of the oxygen atoms in water like that found in quartz rather than
the tridymite-like arrangement observed in ice would have the desired character,
quartz being more dense than tridymite. As the day wore on — the mist did not
lift till 4 p.m. — they continued to consider the bearing of the structure suggested
on other anomalous properties of water, the solution of ions in water, and
particularly, the abnormal mobility of hydrogen ions.
Bernal wrote long afterwards, 'It was, in fact, the only time during our visit
when we had time to think . . . when we were forcibly prevented from doing
anything but thinking and talking'. The time 'would have led to nothing but
talk, if it had not been that the person I was talking with was Fowler. He said
"You must write it up".' 15
The text of the paper published a year later quotes the experimental evidence
already existing in the literature for their ideas — X-ray diffraction studies
on water, liquid metals, tridymite and quartz, suggestions about the distribu-
tion of hydrogen atoms in ice, regular and irregular, and calculations on
many properties of ionic solutions and particularly on the mobilities of ions
in water. Water itself appeared as essentially homogeneous and irregular with a
John Desmond Bernal 51
disordered arrangement of hydrogen bonds (though the term was not yet used)
between the tetrahedrally distributed molecules, and the old concepts of
polymers, dihydrol and trihydrol, were shown to be unnecessary to account for
its properties. In the Cambridge University library most of the first section of a
manuscript of the paper is in Bernal's hand, the last section on hydrogen ion
mobilities is in Fowler's hand, the rest is typescript, variously corrected; so it
clearly involved very close collaboration.
The paper roused a great deal of interest and many problems. W. L. Bragg
wrote that he was 'extremely interested in your analyses of the essential
differences between atomic arrangement in the solid and liquid state'. In a long
letter he discussed this difference in relation to the disorder-order transitions in
alloys. One of the last letters Bernal wrote to Fowler (who died in 1944) was on
further ideas in thermodynamic terms of this essential difference — constant and
variable configurations in atomic arrangement. It was the characteristics of the
arrangement that most fascinated Bernal.
In the autumn of 1932 Bernal set me to make a model of the structure of
water, the first of many he was to conceive. In this model, each water molecule
was represented by an irregular tetrahedron of twisted wire which was joined
to four others by glass tubes cut to give an oxygen-oxygen distance of 2.76 A.
The irregularity of the structure was therefore essentially in the angles between
hydrogen bonds. Unfortunately the assembly had a density smaller than that of
the corresponding ice and was clearly an imperfect representation of water.
Bernal began to turn his mind to simpler liquids, composed of spherical atoms,
metals or rare gases, as easier subjects for the understanding of the liquid state.
He felt that his first idea, that the arrangement of the molecules in the liquid
might simply be an irregular version of that in the solid, was wrong, that
instead there should be a qualitative change in arrangement to account for the
abrupt quality of the change from solids to liquids.
After the war, when he set up research groups at Birkbeck in the other fields
of his major interests, he kept the investigation of the structure of liquids in his
own hands, with usually one or two research students and one or two technicians
to help him. In his view the kind of calculations being then carried out by others
on the liquid state gave little insight into the actual molecular arrangements likely
to be present. In the absence of the theory of statistical geometry he saw as
necessary for the formal solution of the problem, he set out to find the answer by
model building. One of his major models he built himself. He took the evidence
from X-ray diffraction experiments on liquid metals of the distribution of
distances between nearest neighbours in the liquids and had a set of rods cut
with the same distribution of lengths. He joined balls together by the rods in an
irregular way ensured by making one join every time he was interrupted in his
office, on an average, every five minutes, by someone on the telephone or coming
for consultation. The model constructed had approximately the right density and
energy. Other very ingenious models were the one composed of plasticine
spheres, covered in chalk and compressed together in a football bladder, or the
similarly compressed heap of ball bearings, dipped into black paint which
52 Biographical Memoirs
outlined their contacts or lead shot in acetic acid. From these he made several
discoveries about the characteristics of homogeneous, random, close-packed
assemblies. For example, the average number of faces that appeared by com-
pression on the spherical balls was 13.6 (later figures observed are 14.2-14.3), and
the largest number of these faces are pentagons (compare the spherical viruses) ;
also in many regions of the model can be traced three to four atoms in a straight
line. Bernal saw these features as demonstrating how the random state differed
from the regular state in an abrupt way requiring change of state, and how the
arrangements that appeared in the random state had elements promoting
Bernal's major studies of the geometry of the liquid state, 'the order of dis-
order', were described in his Bakerian lecture of 1962. He was able there to say
that 'the first question of what is the structure of a liquid, at least of a simple
liquid, has been effectively solved.' In the last few years of his life his work was
taken up and continued by Dr John Finney at Birkbeck and others elsewhere,
with the growing use of computers which have verified many of his observed
relations. He would be delighted with recent calculations on the structure of
water and of various forms of ice, leading off as he would have wished long ago,
from prescribed parameters of the molecular structure of water and of the
forces between the molecules. In general, it is found that the old Bernal-Fowler
rules hold — that there are two hydrogen atoms attached to each water molecule
and one hydrogen atom between two oxygen atoms ; only in liquid water there
is more irregularity, greater departure from tetrahedral coordination, than
originally expected. 16
Birkbeck College and the beginning of war
J. D. Bernal was appointed Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, London,
to begin on 1 January 1938, part-time until 28 February 1938. He came to a
welcome prepared for him by P. M. S. Blackett, who had preceded him, to a
college in many ways ideally suited to him, still concerned primarily with the
education of part-time working students.
The Physics Department was quite small; there were one Reader and three
lecturers in charge of the teaching and some research in progress, mainly on
cosmic rays. Bernal planned to set up a new unit to continue his Cambridge
researches. The Rockefeller Foundation was much interested in these and
prepared to give him funds for apparatus and staff. But the space available to
put them in was little better than his space at Cambridge, still in a very old
building, Breams Buildings. His X-ray equipment, largely brought from
Cambridge, was in the basement. He himself was in a small cupboard on the top
floor in the corner of a large laboratory for his students.
By the time Bernal was moving to London, W. L. Bragg was planning to
move to Cambridge where, in March 1938, he had been appointed Cavendish
Professor in succession to Rutherford. They consulted amicably about the
division of Bernal's Cambridge apparatus and also students. Max Perutz had
John Desmond Bernal 53
fallen in love with Cambridge and wished to stay there ; W. L. Bragg was much
interested in all that Bernal told him of his work and was glad to keep him and to
find funds to support him. Fankuchen, on the other hand, went to Birkbeck with
Bernal and set the virus work going again there. He was rapidly joined by new
students and more senior research workers, C. H. Carlisle from Burma and
Dr Kathe Schiff, a refugee from Gottingen, where she had earlier guided
Bernal round V. M. Goldschmidt's laboratory. The Royal Society discussion
meeting on Proteins at the end of November 1938 gathered everyone together
to discuss the major problem they wanted to solve in the biochemical field.
J. D. Bernal's inaugural lecture at Birkbeck on 1 December 1938 was planned
to take a still wider look at his work for the future, 'The structure of solids as a
link between Physics and Chemistry'. But it was never written down. It was given
from slides, most of which were hastily gathered for him by Fankuchen on the
day of the lecture. He himself went over to the Royal Institution to borrow one or
two more slides from J. M. Robertson. There he was caught by Langmuir, who
wanted to discuss with him the cyclol theory of proteins. He came away, hours
later, mopping his brow, saying 'And he still believes in it.' At the door of
Birkbeck College he was met by the Vice-Chancellor, and was swept with him
into the inaugural sherry party, before the inaugural lecture. Fankuchen
commented 'The whole way through that lecture the poor guy never knew which
slide was coming next.' But such were his powers of exposition I doubt whether
anyone realized his difficulties : the lecture to his hearers seemed lucid and full of
interest. Only his plans for the future had necessarily to be delayed. Already he was
under great pressure to turn his mind in quite another direction to assist in defence
preparations against Hitler's Germany in the war that seemed inevitable.
For Bernal the thirties had been a period not only of great scientific activity,
but also of thinking and writing about the use of science in peace and war,
culminating in his writing of The social function of science. He took part in the
revival of the Association of Scientific Workers, assisted at meetings of the
Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group, and in discussions with Solly
Zuckerman's dining club, the Tots and Quots. In the spring of 1938 Solly
Zuckerman went from Oxford to see him in London, and to discuss urgently
with him the use to which science could be put in war. Together they prepared
a memorandum which Bernal took first to Sir Basil Liddell-Hart and Zuckerman
later brought to Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha, who was then Secretary of Stale for War.
Later in 1939 Sir Arthur Salter arranged a luncheon party at Oxford at which
Sir John Anderson, then Minister of Home Security, met Bernal. Bernal gave
an account of the experiments which had been carried out by the Cambridge
Scientists' Anti-War group on air raid precautions. The group had started in
1934, and included many of Bernal's circle of scientific friends and also new
young experimenters such as Maurice Wilkins. Anderson was very much im-
pressed and said afterwards that he must have Bernal as scientific adviser even
though he was 'as red as the flames of hell'. So on the outbreak of war he was
called away from Birkbeck to the Research and Experimental Department of the
Ministry of Home Security at Princes Risborough.
54 Biographical Memoirs
Since it seemed likely that London would be bombed Bernal transferred his
research group to other laboratories. C. H. Carlisle came to Oxford bringing
some of Bernal's new research equipment with him. Rathe Schiff went first to
Bristol and then to Oxford. Fankuchen returned to America. A nucleus of the
Physics staff remained behind and continued to lecture at week-ends throughout
the war to students who were working in London. One of these students, a
Polish refugee, who changed his name to Vernon Ingram, was encouraged
by Bernal after the war to work on protein crystals. Much later he prepared
the />-mercuribenzoate derivative of haemoglobin for Perutz.
The war, 193SM-5
Solly Zuckerman recalled Bernal's joining civil defence. 17 'It was only a
matter of days, certainly no more than weeks, before he was the dominant force
in the Research and Experimental department of the Ministry of Home Security.
There was no aspect of the work of Stradling's Department that did not bear the
stamp of his wide-ranging, penetrating mind. He galvanized the Department'.
It was the period of the 'phoney' war. Bernal was primarily concerned with the
physics of explosions and the consequent effects of bombs on structures, on
people and on our social, industrial life. The first could be tested by direct
experiment. Zuckerman described testing the effect of ground shock waves on
monkeys in slit trenches. When the monkeys appeared unmoved by an explosion,
Bernal insisted that he and Zuckerman should join the monkeys for the next
experiment — safely as they proved — against all the advice of the Home Office
experts. As bombs began to fall on London Bernal would go night after night to
look for incidents, check the character of the damage, and particularly advise
on the disposal of unexploded bombs.
One of his objectives in this period was to look ahead, to calculate accurately
the probable effects of raids of varying sizes. He chose an imaginary raid of 500
bombers on Coventry and saw his predictions only too accurately verified by the
actual raid of 450 bombers that took place on the city on 14 November 1940.
Later he derived a mathematical relation between the number of 'incidents' and
the number of casualties to be expected for a certain density of population. For
a time his formula worked well and then gradually, week by week, it became
clear not enough people were being killed per incident. The people had dis-
covered that the only way of avoiding fulfilling Bernal's relation was simply not
to be there. They leaked out of London far more rapidly than the police records
indicated and so escaped the predicted inevitable death.
After the last major blitz on London in 1941 Bernal was seconded first to
Bomber command and then to Combined Operations. In 1943 he went with
Zuckerman to Libya to study the effects of allied and enemy bombing. He was
then moved via Quebec mainly to work on preparations for the Second Front
under Lord Mountbatten, whose own account of his contribution in this period
John Desmond Bernal 55
Memories of Desmond Bernal by Admiral of the Fleet the
Earl Mountbatten of Burma
As Chief of Combined Operations I was charged by the Prime Minister, Mr
Churchill, with the development of the special equipment and techniques for
an opposed landing across the Channel on a scale unknown anywhere before. I
began by getting as many officers of the three Fighting Services as I could to
work on this task, but I soon came to the view that I also wanted to have the
best available non-service men, preferably scientists, who had not been trained
in conventional Service Staff Colleges, and who would have open minds to
entirely new problems.
I discussed this idea with Sir Henry Tizard, who was then the most prominent
scientist in Government employ, and said that I wanted to get two first-rate
scientists who would be put on to the operational analysis of devices and
equipment and techniques for the landing that was to come. He was much
struck with this departure from the conventional use of scientists in Defence
Establishments, and gave me the names of Desmond Bernal and Solly
Zuckerman. I wrote to both ; I remember Bernal replying that he would accept
if Solly Zuckerman did. Zuckerman did accept, so I got them together.
I should add that Mr Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, asked me to
take on my staff another independent thinker called Geoffrey Pyke. Pyke had no
scientific qualifications but in many ways was a genius. Bernal helped him, as I
shall mention later on.
The particular problems which I assigned to Bernal related to the initial
landing across the beaches. He worked with my Director of Experiments and
Staff Requirements, Captain T. A. Hussey, Royal Navy, and made significant
contributions to techniques for dealing with under-water obstacles and defences
on the beaches, with the assessment of the gradients of beaches, and the con-
sistency of their bearing surface, and with runnels and sand banks.
Soon after the arrival of the scientists, I told my staff that they were not to be
asked just to answer questions posed by the uniformed staff but to be fully
brought in to the framing of the questions for whose solutions their help was
wanted. Curiously this went rather badly at first with the uniformed staff. But
then fate played into my hands.
A young naval officer went to Bernal and asked him what he thought the
chances were of making a very small light portable echo-sounder to measure
very small depths accurately. Bernal asked 'Why ?'. The officer replied that the
matter was too secret to explain, and it was up to Bernal to answer the question.
To this Bernal replied 'No' and that I had given an instruction that the scientists
were to participate in the formulation of the problems to be investigated. He
therefore wished to know more.
Rather reluctantly the young officer then told him that what was wanted was a
way of finding out, without the Germans knowing what we were doing, how to
measure beach gradients, the runnels, as well as the consistency of the kind of
beaches which we might assault. His own idea was to put a light echo sounder
56 Biographical Memoirs
on a board and push it in at night from a submarine with a swimmer who would
try to obtain this information.
Bernal's reply was 'You've asked the wrong question, you should have said
"How do we measure the beach gradients, and runnels without the Germans
knowing ?" * His own answer was that P. R. Photography should be used, taking
vertical photographs of the desired beaches at various stages of the tide and
directions of the wind, and that the coverage should extend beyond the desired
beaches so as to disguise from the Germans what we were up to.
This incident has been quoted before but I mention it here because it shows
how strongly Bernal resisted the attempt by uniformed staff to put him into a
position of merely answering questions which they were putting. He insisted in
participating in the formulation of problems. This was a very great pioneer
service which he performed.
The other major project on which he was employed was called HABBAKUK.
This was a brain-child of Geoffrey Pyke, and consisted in producing enormous
unsinkable aircraft carriers built of a mixture of 5% wood pulp and water frozen
into a form of ice which became known as Pykrete. It was far stronger than
ordinary ice and when it melted it produced its own insulating coat.
Each ship was to have a displacement of about a million tons with a 3000 ft
runway and a speed of barely 5 knots.* The concept was really vast and I turned
it over to Bernal for its technical evaluation. He became the principal technical
man on the Committee which was set up to look into this scheme.
There were two main reasons for these great iceberg aircraft carriers. One
was that they could provide fighter airfields against the north-west coast of
France in case it was finally decided to invade the Continent from that direction,
which aircraft based on English airfields could not cover. In fact the German
defences to the west were far weaker for the very reason that we could not cover
it with our shore based fighters. The second reason was to establish airfields in
mid-Atlantic from which aircraft could operate to help in the anti-U Boat war.
Now to discuss what Bernal did. He was the man who supervised all the
scientific aspects of the investigation into these colossal aircraft carriers or
mobile floating airfields. He enquired into the properties of ice, and more
particularly into those of this curious stuff we called pykrete, and he worked
closely with the naval constructors.
It was Bernal who persuaded me to take steps to get Perutz, a brilliant refugee
scientist, released from internment to work on this project — with excellent
results, t It was Perutz who in particular studied the properties of pykrete, and
who supervised the practical experiments of making pykrete in cold storage
plants. Finally a section of one of these giant carriers was built in Newfoundland,
where the pykrete was frozen by nature on a large scale.
The HABBAKUK project was going along nicely, but there was a lot of
* Perutz gives the figures as displacement, 2.2 million tons, speed 7 knots, length of runway
t Perutz was actually released some eighteen months earlier at Bragg's request. He was
however rapidly given British nationality to work on pykrete.
John Desmond Bernal 57
opposition. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943 the American Chiefs of
Staff were persuaded by Admiral King to ask for an appreciation of the pros
and cons of the project. Admiral King, the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, was
opposed to it. The U.S. planners started to prepare their appreciation with
inadequate knowledge and understanding and were somewhat lost. Bernal, who
had become so expert in proclaiming the points in favour of Habbakuk, now, with
his Jesuitical mind, volunteered to produce all the points against it as well.
The criticisms of the project were so powerful that they turned the scales against
it and I had a telegram from the Prime Minister, Mr Churchill, saying that 'The
next time you come to a Combined Chiefs of Staff Conference, you must not
bring your Scientific Advisers with you."*
In fact all that happened was that the priority was taken off HABBAKUK,
though the work continued under Perutz. There were four reasons why its
First, these great floating airfields or aircraft carriers had to have enormous
steel skeletons, round which the pykrete was built, and the demand was so great
that steel couldn't really be afforded for this purpose.
Second, the Portuguese allowed us to use their airfields in the Azores so that
the need to have a staging post and floating airfield in Mid-Atlantic to help in
the U-Boat warfare disappeared.
Third, the addition of long range tanks made it possible to operate our fighters
across wider stretches of the Channel, and reduced the necessity of having a
floating airfield off the French coast.
Fourth, although HABBAKUK itself was supposed to withstand between 70
and 80 torpedos before disintegrating, in the end it was believed to be cheaper
and simpler and quicker to construct large numbers of conventional carriers,
using about the same amount of steel. Even if some were sunk there would still be
enough left to carry on.
Desmond Bernal also helped with the artificial harbour, MULBERRY. In
particular he looked into the question of the suppression of waves by introducing
barriers. The first idea he examined was the Russian scheme for putting per-
forated air pipes along the bottom through which compressed air could be
pumped. This causes an aerated barrier of water, which being compressible
would not transmit wave motion. I turned down this idea on the grounds that
it required a great air compressor to be moored off an enemy beach, which
could easily be knocked out by a single well aimed bomb.
The next idea we looked at were what were called LILOS. These consisted of
inflated canvas bags moored as a breakwater so that they would yield to the pres-
sure of the waves and not transmit them — the air being not so much compressed
as altering its shape in the bags.
Finally, of course, we turned to the simplest of all projects but perhaps the
most expensive, which was to sink ships and concrete caissons. This idea was
first put forward by the late Admiral John Hughes-Hallet at the RATTLE
Conference which I called at Largs in the Autumn of 1942 to discuss the plans
* Perutz believes this incident occurred later, in Washington.
58 Biographical Memoirs
of the Normandy invasion. I called in Bernal who quickly proved to be a powerful
I brought Bernal on board the Queen Mary for our trip over to the Quebec
Conference — called QUADRANT — in August 1943. I called him in to give a
demonstration to the Prime Minister and the Chiefs of Staff of the idea of an
artificial harbour providing enough shelter for disembarking. We went into one
of the big bathrooms where Bernal had made little paper ships. First of all the
paper ships were put at one end of the bath and an officer making waves showed
that they would soon be sunk. Then Bernal used an inflatable swimming collar
which he stretched across the bath which absorbed the movement of the waves
and the little paper ships survived.
There was no doubt that Bernal's demonstration, together with his extremely
able exposition of the subject, helped tip the scales with the Chiefs of Staff and
made Mr Churchill more enthusiastic than ever.
Bernal, of course, was used on a number of minor projects in the Headquarters
with great effect. His brilliant mind always either demolished the need for some
proposed project or developed it into something more practical.
Desmond Bernal was one of the most engaging personalities I have ever
known. I became really fond of him, and enjoyed my discussions and arguments
immensely. He had a very clear analytical brain ; he was tireless and outspoken.
But perhaps his most pleasant quality was his generosity. He never minded
slaving away on other people's ideas, helping to decide what could or could not
be done, without himself being the originator of any of the major ideas on which
he actually worked. This may be the reason why his great contribution to the
war effort has not been properly appreciated, but those of us who really knew
what he did have an unbounded admiration for his contribution to our winning
Bernal himself had great admiration and affection for Mountbatten. He told
one story to the B.B.C. which illustrates their relation. He said, 'Mountbatten
was a wonderful character. He had the habit that great Commanders have of
acting first and thinking afterwards. ... I didn't see him very often, but he
sometimes sent for me. We talked about this and that and he said "You know,
I've been thinking you ought to go to Canada some time." I said "I expect
you've got your reasons. I've no objection on principle." He said "You know,
I've been thinking about it rather a lot. I think you ought to go quite soon, I've
arranged for you to start this afternoon." '
During the war Bernal continued to influence the course of scientific research.
The X-ray analysis group meetings were started, and took place in Cambridge
and Oxford. At the Oxford meetings he had talks with P. P. Ewald both about
past history and the future of crystallography. With V. M. Goldschmidt he
also discussed the formation of the beaches in Normandy since Goldschmidt, as
a geologist, knew these well. (Bernal also knew them from childhood holidays
and verified his memories when he visited them again on D-day + 1, 1945. ) 15
The theatre of war moved and took him East. He began to make Indian
John Desmond Bernal 59
friends and to learn about the development of science in India. And in a jungle
in Ceylon, he talked with John Kendrew about the way that it should be possible
to use X-rays to solve the structure of proteins and so to begin to understand
their functions in every living organism.
Birkbeck College, after the war
As the war ended Bernal began to gather the pieces of his Department of
Physics. Breams Buildings had been destroyed by bombing and the construction
of new buildings on Malet Street was just beginning. Although teaching had
continued in parts of the college at week-ends most of the research workers
had moved gradually into war research or other war service. It took a little
time to gather them together. At Bernal's instigation the College acquired for
temporary use as research laboratories, two old houses, 21 and 22 Torrington
Square. While they were being made ready for the work, Bernal was given
hospitality for one year in the Davy Faraday laboratory, and then in Medical
Research Council laboratories at Hendon with C. H. Waddington. On 1 July
1948 the Torrington Square houses were declared formally open as a Bio-
molecular Research Laboratory by Sir Lawrence Bragg. Squatters in the shape
of Ehrenberg, Jennings, Hirsch and Ansbacher began to work there, in fact, late
During the thirties Bernal had drawn up plans for his dream Institute — the
place where he could imagine all the kinds of research in which he was most
interested could be carried out with all the equipment and technical research
required for their support. He sometimes called it 'The Institute for the Study
of Things'. This he now set out to create within the limitations imposed by 21 and
22 Torrington Square — he never was to work in the new research laboratories
slowly building during his professorship. He organized research groups which
grew gradually into six or seven effectively independent units under senior
research workers, but linked by their common interest in structures. At first the
biomolecular work on proteins, viruses and small molecules related to these
was looked after by C. H. Carlisle; gradually the virus work grew into a separate
unit. Similarly on the inorganic side separate groups gradually developed on
cement and building materials and on inorganic oxides. Both were (at least in
theory) supported by the research group on electron optics and X-ray tubes
under Ehrenberg and the computing laboratory headed by Donald Booth.
Bernal kept in his own hands the study of the liquid state. Many of the individual
researches undertaken in the different groups had their origin in industrial
needs, e.g. on coal and graphitic oxide, on clinker and on gluten in flour.
Carlisle concentrated first on the solution of the structure of small interesting
molecules such as biotin and also on some which represented the building units of
the natural large polymers. The structure of glutathione long before isolated by
Hopkins and Pirie, was solved by a part-time working D.Phil, student, Winifred
Wright. 19 Within the tripeptide crystal one can see very clearly the conforma-
tional rules in action, controlling the arrangement of the atoms as they proved
60 Biographical Memoirs
to do in larger protein molecules. Cytidine, a nucleoside of which the structure
was solved by Dr Sven Furberg, 20 a visitor from Norway, was even more
important practically. The geometrical relations found within it of base to sugar
and phosphate were used to assist in solving the structure of DNA a few years
later by Watson and Crick. Furberg himself built models for DNA, but a little
tentatively — one with the phosphate chain in and one with it out. The idea of
double strands was still to come. As a protein molecule to work on, Harry
Carlisle chose ribonuclease, a small protein first measured by Fankuchen during
the war. Though it gave in his hands, extremely good X-ray photographs
Carlisle had difficulty with making heavy atom derivatives that were sufficiently
isomorphous. He and his students solved the structure eventually in 1974. 21
From 1953-55 on, the research work in viruses was in the hands of Rosalind
Franklin, Aaron Klug, and their students, Holmes, Finch and Longley. Aaron
Klug had come to work on proteins, but meeting Rosalind on the stairs and
hearing of her fascinating problems, he asked to change projects. Together they
developed marvellously delicate techniques for securing new and beautiful
X-ray data. Aaron Klug remembers the infectious enthusiasm of Bernal
bounding up three flights of stairs, day after day, with a characteristic 'What's
new ?'. 'Of course, one could not, except in the bumper years of 1955 to 1956,
always provide him with something new, but his constant interest and
questioning were a source of great inspiration to us.' 22
It was in these bumper years that Franklin and Klug found the essentially
helical arrangements of sub units in TMV and that Klug with Caspar took
part in the development of the theory of the icosahedral packing of protein
units over the surface of spherical viruses. Conditions of work cannot be said
to have been quite ideal — X-ray tubes in the basement, experiments in the attics.
Klug has recalled 'These leaked sometimes when it rained heavily but provided
a rather peaceful place for Rosalind Franklin to exercise her great skill and
ingenuity at preparing better and better specimens and for myself to contemplate
some of the theoretical problems involved in the helical diffraction analysis.' 72
Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 and the future of virus work became uncertain
at Birkbeck as Bernal's own retirement drew near. In 1962 Klug and his group
moved to Cambridge to the M.R.C. Laboratory and work on TMV still
The inorganic section of the laboratory was, to start with, largely concerned
with Portland cement and concrete. It began under the direction of Helen
Megaw, then, when she went as a fellow to Girton, under Steffen Peiser,
followed by Jim Jefferey. The chief difficulties were in taking X-ray photographs
of very minute crystals in the different phases. Here the microfocus tubes
developed by Ehrenberg were most important and had to be supplemented by
microcameras. The most important structure solved was that of tricalcium
silicate, followed by the studies of its various hydrates. Rather similar problems
were encountered in the research Alan Mackay carried out on the series of oxides
and hydroxides of iron, which could be transformed into one another. These led
to general studies of transformations in the solid state, 'topotactic' reactions.
John Desmond Bernal 61
Many of these were found to involve a framework of close packed oxygen atoms
where transformation could occur by the substitution of hydroxide ions for
oxygen and vice versa. A single crystal, for example, of FeOOH, could be
observed by a combination of electron diffraction and electron microscopy,
changing internally while maintaining its shape.
The X-ray tubes developed by Ehrenberg proved widely useful not only in
Birkbeck but in many different laboratories over the world. Arrangements were
made for their commercial manufacture. Ehrenberg himself became first a
Reader within the Department of Physics, and then was given a personal
Setting up a computing laboratory was one of Bernal's most far sighted
projects — advances in computing were to be essential for the solution of the
problems he cared about. But things did not turn out quite as he wished.
Booth developed many good ideas on computer building including computer-
graphics but the day to day needs of the laboratory were growing so fast that they
outstripped him. They had to turn to the main University computers for
assistance. The different computing units joined forces.
One of Bernal's earlier liquid models was built in a room in Torrington
Square. It grew so large it could not be moved till the house was demolished — it
now has plenty of space in the Science Museum.
Bernal was concerned with the organization of the laboratory as a whole, not
only of his own research groups. He began by changing the conditions of work
of the technicians, making it possible for them also to continue their studies and
take part in college social life. He supplemented the one part-time demonstrator
he found there with student demonstrators who gradually became post-graduate
student demonstrators. He organized monthly meetings between the staff and
undergraduates, each class normally electing two representatives who should
discuss difficulties and suggestions for improvement; when troubles came later
to other University departments they were not found in the Birkbeck Physics
department. With the research groups his links were very close ; a small flat was
arranged at the top of 21 Torrington Square where he could sleep at nights
when desired. It made it possible for anyone to drop in and talk with him late in
the evening and also to entertain easily visitors, scientists, artists and writers,
his many friends, from all over the world. When the flat was finally
demolished, one wall, with Picasso's drawing on it, was carefully removed and is
now preserved in the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The plaque recording
that Paul Robeson sang there is kept at Birkbeck still.
For the continuity of research in crystallography Bernal was very much
concerned that crystallography should also be taught. It was not easy to arrange
this within the framework of undergraduate teaching in Natural Science at
London. He therefore set up in 1948 a two-year course in Crystallography for
the M.Sc. degree which has proved very successful. Professor Lonsdale at
University College was his chief collaborator in the project; departments at
Imperial College and Battersea Polytechnic also assisted.
At the end of the war Bernal had won golden opinions in government circles.
62 Biographical Memoirs
For a time it seemed that he would play as active a part in reconstruction as in
the war. From 1945 to 1949 he was Chairman of the Scientific Committee of the
Ministry of Works and became occupied in finding methods of rebuilding and
rehousing bombed-out people in the cheapest and most rapid way. This brought
him in touch with architects — he had always been very much interested in
architecture; he helped to found the Architectural Science Board in 1945-47.
Gradually his membership of many government committees ended. Other
commitments took their place. He was always very much concerned with the
problems of scientific information and took a leading part in the Royal Society's
International Conference in 1947, as well as the Washington conference in 1958.
The D.S.I.R. appointed him as their representative on the council of A.S.L.I.B. ;
in 1960 he was president of the 35th annual conference. Some of his ideas led
much later to the formation of the very successful Cambridge crystallographic
data centre, directed by Dr Olga Kennard.
At first, after the war he had very little difficulty in obtaining funds to support
his research. By 1949 the climate was changing with the onset of the cold war.
Bernal's strong criticism of the renewed build-up of armaments in the West, his
continuing support for the Soviet Union and his defence of Lysenko in circum-
stances which most regarded as indefensible brought him under attack from
many quarters. There were difficulties over his obtaining research grants. He
continued to visit the Soviet Union and to seek to bring about the changes,
there and generally, which he saw to be necessary.
The period of increasing financial stringency through which he passed as his
tenure of the Professorship of Physics drew near to its close made Bernal fearful
of the future and anxious — as Hutchinson had been before him in Cambridge —
to secure the continuing existence of crystallography in Birkbeck. The Depart-
ment of Physics had grown. Ehrenberg had been given a personal
professorship in Experimental Physics, Furth was Reader in Theoretical
Physics, Carlisle was Reader in Crystallography, there were one senior lecturer,
seven lecturers, and two assistant lecturers. Bernal proposed to the College in
1961 that the department be divided into two, and that a new chair in Crystallo-
graphy be created at Birkbeck, which he might hold for the last five years of his
academic life, while Ehrenberg should be promoted to be head of the Depart-
ment of Physics. This was, not without some difficulty, agreed and, to his great
pleasure, Bernal became the first Professor of Crystallography at Birkbeck
College in 1963, and indeed the only one in this country.
The world and the origin of life
There is a story of two friends of Bernal's talking to one another. The first
asked, 'How is he, what is he doing now ?' T don't know, the world is his oyster.'
'Rather' the first replied 'is the universe his oyster — the world is his pearl.'
All his life — from childhood — he was fascinated by the Universe, astronomy,
the world, geology and mineralogy and he wrote speculative papers from time to
time, when he had good ideas, on the origin of the planets, the structure of the
John Desmond Bernal 63
world, and within their framework of the origin of life. In his correspondence at
Cambridge are comparatively recent letters between Blackett and himself on
continental drift — Bernal adopting Blackett's evidence given in his Bakerian
lecture and then describing, with diagrams, a very elaborate structure for the
Earth capable of accounting for the observations Blackett had made. 2 His ideas,
somewhat modified and extended are published in a later Royal Society
symposium. He felt it necessary to know, as far as possible, the nature of the
system in every detail within which he lived.
His book On The origin of life grew more directly out of his own research
work and early conversations with Haldane and Oparin, but also grew with the
years from speculative lectures and discussions until it was able to incorporate
the most recent discoveries of molecular biology. The book discusses many
stages, the Universe, the formation of our Earth and its atmosphere, possible
sites for the formation of the first organic molecules, the stages of their growth
into more complicated forms. He wrote
'Life is beginning to cease to be a mystery and becoming practically a
cryptogram, a puzzle, a code that can be broken, a working model that
sooner or later can be made . . . while removing most of the mysteries of
life, it has not reduced in the minds of the scientific biologists of today any
of the appreciation of its complexity and beauty.'
He also wrote.
'The last word about death has still to be spoken; the important thing is
not the death of the individual man or species but the effective immortality
of life itself, that is the effective reproducibility of genetic carrying nucleic
acid molecules. What I'm attempting to say is "Life does not die" but more
accurately to have to admit that "Life has not died" and that potential
calamity is still with us.'
In the last few years of his working life he became very much excited by the
carbonaceous meteorites and particularly by the possibility that some or one of
them might contain fossilized micro-organisms as proposed by Dr G. Claus and
Dr B. Nagy. He invited Dr George Mueller from Chile to work on the problem
and he himself examined some critical specimens. Though for a moment it was
fascinating for him to think of extraterrestrial situations for the origin of life,
he was on the whole relieved when new evidence indicated that the life like
objects in the meteorites could be due to contamination.
Mueller had earlier discovered long rods of a bitumen-like substance in a
Derbyshire quarry; it contained carbon, hydrogen and a little sulphur and he
called it at first definite and later Bernalite, as an appropriate name for an
organic material found among minerals.
Writings about science and society
Bernal was a very fluent writer and wrote both books and articles designed
predominantly to further the use of science to improve society.
64 Biographical Memoirs
He was very pleased in 1968 that his first book, published in 1929, was reissued
in a second edition. It was a light fantastic forecast of the future of The World,
the Flesh and the Devil, 'the three enemies of man's rational soul' and contained
many of the seeds of ideas he elaborated later. He commented in his new
introduction, that while some of his predictions had come true, others so far
had not. Particularly he felt he had trusted too much to Freud to deal with the
Devil (man's passions, stupidity and ignorance) — he now would put more hope
for the future on new scientific advances 'many just over the horizon, notably
those on memory which appears to have a chemical basis.'
His interest in history and science policy — the past, the present and the
future — was powerfully strengthened and sharply focused in 1931 at the Second
International Congress of the History of Science and Technology held in
London, when he heard a Soviet team of theoreticians, scientists and historians,
which included Bukharin, Vavilov and Joffe, express their philosophy of history.
Here, for the first time, the Russians put before western bourgeois intellectuals
their conception of the universe and the historical process and related them to their
schemes of action. As is apparent from an article he wrote about the Congress in
The Spectator in July 1931 (republished in The freedom of necessity) Bernal was
deeply impressed. He wrote of the 'appalling inefficiency of science at the present
time, tied to academic and impoverished universities and to secretive and
competitive industries and national governments.' By contrast, he said, the
U.S.S.R. had 850 linked research institutes and 40 000 research workers. Is it
better, he asked, 'to be intellectually free but socially totally ineffective or to
become a component part of a system where knowledge and action are joined for
one common social purpose ?' This article may perhaps be regarded as a point
of departure for his subsequent writings on the history of science and science
His major work of the nineteen-thirties was The social function of science,
published in 1939. It was designed to show how science could be used to change
man's life and to advocate government expenditure to support scientific advances
and planning to ensure the best use of resources. As he said, twenty-five years
later, to a very large extent the book had fulfilled its original object: 'to make
people aware of the new function that science was acquiring then and would
increasingly acquire in the future in determining the condition of human life —
and as it is now tragically revealed — of the very existence of humanity'. Much
that he wrote about the organization of science, the necessity of close collabora-
tion of numbers of investigators, is common sense today.
After the war he became increasingly depressed that the power of great
scientific discoveries was still being diverted into research on new weapons of
war away from the needs of the people. In the book he published in 1958,
World without war, to try to reverse this direction, he wrote 'We have almost
forgotten the possibility of a real constructive purpose into which we can throw
the whole of our energies and our intelligences. When I think of myself, after
nearly a full life time of scientific work, I still resent the fact that I have never had
at any time of my life the possibility of really planning and doing things that
John Desmond Bernal 65
would be practical and useful for humanity. The only time I could get my ideas
translated in any way into action in the real world was in the service of war. And
though it was a war which I felt then and still feel had to be won, its destructive
character clouded and spoilt for me the real pleasure of being an effective human
being.' To set against his own depression he discussed in detail the development of
the world's resources to support his thesis that 'permanent prosperity, no longer
a Utopian dream, awaits the arrival of permanent peace'.
His books on the future are backed by books on the past. He dated his own
serious interest in the history of science to the early twenties in London, when
he met and had long conversations with Dr H. W. Dickinson who was Director
of the Science Museum and father of H. D. Dickinson. At Royal Society meet-
ings, be used particularly to enjoy exchanging pieces of information he had
happened to collect in his reading with Harold Hartley who had similar interests.
Of his three books in this field, Science in history, is in many ways the most am-
bitious and has also proved the most popular. It arose from the lectures he was asked
to give at Ruskin College in 1948, which he gave very largely out of his head from
his store of knowledge. They proved very stimulating and a written version was
requested. He hoped to prepare one in three weeks, but realising it would require
far more study and hard thinking, took six years. Margaret Gowing commented
for me 'Very few books are successful which aim to cover history from the
dawn of civilisations up to the present and Science in History is no exception.
The width of the field covered and the learning absorbed are impressive and
experts found it accurate at the time of publication. Ideas are sparked off for
others to pursue. But the text, broken up by countless cross headings is difficult
to read as a coherent whole.' The second half devoted to the twentieth century,
the social sciences and the conclusion gave Bernal most trouble ; he modified it
several times as his views changed about events in the Soviet Union.
The much smaller book Science and industry in the nineteenth century is very
different, limited in space and time. It consists of four case histories, on heat
and energy, ferments and microbes, steel, electric light and power and one
chapter includes 'a gem', (M.G.) the Pasteur memorial lecture given in 1946 in
Paris at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Pasteur's death. Bernal has
told how Wyart met him on his arrival in Paris with Pasteur's original notebooks
of the discovery of molecular dissymmetry — which caused him wholly to rewrite
The third book The extension of Man was published after Bernal's death.
Margaret Gowing writes Tt is both marvellously exhilarating and a remarkable
testimony to Bernal's conviction of the importance of history. It is basically the
transcription of the lectures he gave to first year physics students at Birkbeck
on the history and nature of experimental physics up to the end of the nineteenth
century. "I have been giving these lectures because I believe that it is useful to
have some idea, not only of what people believe now — which is after all, only a
temporary stage in the development of physics — but also how we came to think
in that way and how' the whole current of physics is tied up with its history. This
is linked on the one side with the development of practical devices and on the
66 Biographical Memoirs
other with the development of human thought in the philosophical field." The
dustcover blurb is entirely accurate. 'The lectures complete with the fascinating
original illustrations retain the freshness, humour and enthralling detail com-
municated to student audiences over twenty years.' It is a perfect introduction
to the subject.
These writings on science and society and his various essays, particularly
those in The freedom of necessity (1949), were composed within a framework of
Marxist ideas — ideas which Bernal had first discovered through his early
conversation with Dickinson. Like Descartes and Kant he cared a great deal
about method (there is a section on method in 'Microcosm'), about finding a
correct method of reasoning in any branch of knowledge, but also of under-
standing the relations between theories developed in the various branches of
knowledge. This method Marxism seemed to offer. For such a committed
systematiser as Bernal it was natural in our day that Marxist categories
of thought should provide the most promising basis for systematisation.
But for Bernal Marxism was more than simply a way of reflecting about,
attempting to systematise, the data of science and common sense. Essen-
tially it was science; it was common sense. Marxism was at the same
time a humanism — the ground of moral and political values. Like most of us
Bernal was much concerned with the problem — What do we mean by 'good'
and what is our criterion of goodness ? Once he had rejected the Catholic
answer to this question he found the answer of Marxism (not wholly dissimilar)
rational and acceptable. According to this view a good act is one which con-
tributes to the realisation of a society in which harmonious relations exist
between human beings, in which 'the free development of all is the condition of
the free development of each', in which the alienation that individuals experience
in the various forms of class society is overcome. Marxist ethics thus implies a
commitment both to work towards a perfected community and to try to live
according to its principles within the present very imperfect one. Bernal's life
and work reflect this twofold revolutionary ethic and the problems which it
Bernal started his travelling early with his mother to America when he was
two years old. Later there were family holidays in France and undergraduate
expeditions through Europe, and particularly climbing in Austria. His close
scientific international relations began in the Davy Faraday laboratory and his
first major scientific visit abroad was as described earlier to German scientific
laboratories in 1928. This visit was followed by meetings in London and in
Zurich to design international publications in crystallography. Bernal made close
friends with Paul Ewald and Carl Hermann, who visited him in Cambridge, and
also with the French crystallographers, particularly Wyart.
Gradually politics began to intrude on science. Carl Hermann wrote to
Bernal about a possible job he had seen advertised in Cambridge in 1935:
John Desmond Bernal 67
Bernal replied it had been filled, but suggested an application to the Academic
Assistance Council, which had been set up to assist refugees from Fascism. The
Hermanns decided, very characteristically, that they ought to stay where they
were — they were only Quaker Pacifists and not in such danger as others. But
Paul Ewald came over — to our great advantage — in 1937.
Bernal gave lectures in the middle thirties in Scandinavia, Holland and
France. In France he was introduced to Langevin and to Frederic and Irene
Joliot-Curie. He became very close friends with them and used often to stay at
their summer home in Brittany in later days. He found them deeply involved in
the organization of the French anti-fascist movement which was to lead to the
Popular Front Government. Inspired by their example Bernal took part in
the formation of an organisation, 'For Intellectual Liberty', in England. They
planned to cooperate at the international level.
Bernal's first visit to the Soviet Union occurred in 1931. He travelled with a
group of friends from Cambridge, which included Cockcroft, Bill and Tony
Pirie and Glenn Millikan. They were able in those rather rough, primitive and
casual days to travel round more freely than became possible later, to see
difficulties as well as successes, the construction camps for the Dnieper dam and
something of the hard times that were produced for the peasants in the early
days of collectivization. Bernal commented 'There was no mistaking the sense
of achievement in those days of trial. It was grim but great'. The following year
he was invited back, as described earlier, to scientific meetings in Leningrad
and Moscow, and this led to a further invitation, to spend some two months
working in the Laboratory of Physical Chemistry, Moscow, and giving some
lectures in Leningrad. Margaret Gardiner, who was with him most of the time,
has left a full account of this visit. 23 It began characteristically with their having
to travel separately — Bernal's visa came late — however, she was met and cared
for by Peter Kapitza, just at that time held back from return to Cambridge. She
gives a lovely picture of his mother, 'a charming fine-drawn old lady, the widow
of a general, now living in a single room in the large flat that had once been
wholly hers. The other rooms were occupied by workers — couples and families.
"It's better so" she told me. "What did I want with all that space ? I'm busy and
I love my work; I teach illiterates. . . . And I like my lodgers, they are friends,
they are company. I like having life and children around me.'"
Bernal very much enjoyed the experience of working closely with Soviet
scientists. He interested one of the physical chemists, Professor Belov, so much
in X-ray crystallography that he changed fields and in time became — and still
is — one of the leading crystallographers in the Soviet Union.
During the war Bernal travelled widely, but quite differently, to Canada and
the United States, India and Ceylon, as required, but he was excluded, to his
dismay, from any advisory missions to the U.S.S.R., or even from attendance at
the celebration of the 220th anniversary of the founding of the Academy of
Science of the U.S.S.R., which took place in May 1945. He saw his exclusion
(with that of Blackett) as one of the symptoms of the beginning of the cold war,
the breakdown of friendly contacts between East and West, and set himself in
68 Biographical Memoirs
the following years to help to found a number of international organizations to
reform and extend friendly relations between all countries.
One of the new organizations was the International Union of Crystallography.
The founding meeting was called by Sir Lawrence Bragg, at the Royal
Institution. Crystallographers from many countries came. Bernal gave one of the
lectures. Paul Ewald gave an account of the international organization of
Scientific Unions, and everyone agreed that a Union should be constituted, to
meet in 1948, with von Laue as first president, and Sir Lawrence Bragg first
chairman. The Soviet delegation came late for the main discussions (visa
problems) but in time for some of the meetings on the founding of a new
international journal which they helped to name Acta Crystallographica. From
that time on the International Union meetings were part of Bernal's life. He
became a member of the Executive Committee at the second meeting in Stock-
holm and was elected president in 1963.
Also in 1946, in London, at the time of the Newton Tercentenary Celebrations,
Bernal took part in founding a wider organisation, the World Federation of
Scientific Workers, designed to bring together scientific workers from all over
the world, 'to promote understanding and co-operative action between the
member organizations ... to work for the fullest utilization of science in
promoting peace and the welfare of mankind'. Bernal first thought of the idea
of such an organization in a break during the war on the island of Djerba, off
Tunisia. He was largely responsible for the drafting of the constitution; Joliot-
Curie became the first president and Bernal and Semenov were elected the first
vice-presidents. The organization grew a little slowly from the first members
which included the British Association of Scientific Workers, the French
Association des Travailleurs Scientifiques and the Indian Association of
Scientific Workers. The Soviet Union did not actually join until 1952. Bernal
attended most of the early meetings. Visa problems gradually forced most of
them to be held in Eastern Europe.
In 1949 Bernal took part in Paris in founding the World Peace Council,
the sequel to a meeting of intellectuals held the year before in Wroclaw. It
provided the kind of company that Bernal most enjoyed ; poets such as Neruda
and Hikmet ; artists, Picasso; writers, Ilya Ehrenberg; philosophers, J. P. Sartre,
and his own particular scientific friends from East and West. Joliot-Curie
became first president and Bernal one of the vice-presidents. Ivor Montagu
became a member of the secretariat. The immediate problems in the earlier years
arose out of the strained relations between the former war allies, the arms race
and the atom bomb. Joliot-Curie and Bernal were necessarily concerned also
with the problem of prisoners wrongfully arrested, yet anxious above all things
to preserve the friendship of the much battered Soviet Union. Gradually they
established very friendly relations with Khrushchev which helped their cause
and also helped to remove many less serious sources of friction between east and
west. Bernal used to say that when he visited Moscow Khrushchev would begin
by joking, saying — 'Who is it you want to get married this time ?'. Bernal first
returned to Moscow after the war in 1949: in the 1950s he visited the Soviet
John Desmond Bernal 69
Union almost every year, sometimes more than once. As time went on the
World Peace Council expanded and embraced developing countries, which brought
new problems, and rifts grew between different members of the eastern bloc.
Frederic Joliot-Curie died in 1958 and Bernal became Chairman of the Presid-
ium. He visited China twice, in 1954 and 1959, very much enjoyed the beautiful
places he saw and greatly admired the progress that the people were making. He
met and talked with Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai and Kuo Mo-jo. For years he
tried to prevent the rift between the delegates of China and of the U.S.S.R.,
which greatly distressed him.
He had many other missions around the world — too many for his own good —
giving lectures and scientific advice, as well as visiting peace groups in Eastern
Europe, in Asia, Africa and South America. In 1950 he was invited to visit
India to speak at the Indian Science Congress, and attend the opening of the
National Physical Laboratory. Krishna Menon was an old friend of his, Nehru
became a new one, anxious to consult him on scientific developments in India.
He was invited to Ghana in 1960 to take part in an international commission to
advise on the organisation of the University of Ghana, once it had severed its
links as a University College with London University. As usual he was involved
in a large part of writing the report — taking over from Thomas Hodgkin each
night at 4 a.m. — they split the 'working night' between them. Some way
through the deliberations, Kwame Nkrumah carried off Bernal to advise on
measures to be taken to prevent the town of Kita from being washed in to the sea.
I first heard of Bernal's visit to Chile from Dr Wittke who described how he
came into the laboratory and helped to separate under the microscope the parts
of a twinned crystal. His main purpose however was to attend a large inter-
national summer school on 'The Image of Latin America: the Image of Man' to
which Linus Pauling also contributed, and to visit Neruda and Allende.
One important visit was to East Germany early in 1962. It was a very happy
visit, to celebrate the opening of an Institute of the Academy of Science for
Crystallography, to be directed by Dr Kathe Dornberger-Schiff, who had come
to Bernal as a refugee from Gottingen in 1938. There was a meeting to discuss
recent crystallographic research in the presence of Dr Friedrich. He was at
that time President of the Deutsche Academie der Wissenschaften, and the only
one surviving of the three who took part in the original experiments in X-ray
diffraction in Munich in 1912. Bernal was concerned in arranging for him to come
to Munich to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of X-ray diffrac-
Bernal himself went to Munich in 1962 for the celebrations, but the end of
his travelling was near. One of his last journeys abroad was to America, a
second home with his relations when he was allowed there.
The last years
The last ten years of his life were increasingly difficult. When Bernal looked
back he dated the onset of his illness as far back as 1951, when he was conscious
of finding climbing in the French Alps tiring.
70 Biographical Memoirs
The most obvious signs of something wrong were during the visit to East
Germany to open Kathe Dornberger-Schiff's laboratory in 1962. The last day
was spent on visits, coming from Jena to Weimar, and then to Eisenhuttenstadt.
We were very late. Bernal could hardly walk to the reception. He stood very
crookedly. However, he recovered and continued. The following year on the
Aldermaston march he could not keep up after the first five miles and had to
drop out. He visited his doctor. His neck was X-rayed and his condition
diagnosed as being due to the effect of a cervical vertebra on the blood supply
to the spine. For a short time he wore a collar. His first serious stroke came on
gradually that summer, 1963. He returned by plane (much delayed) from New
York from a Gordon Conference. It was very hot, the air conditioning had broken
down and he felt very shaky. At Heathrow he was not met but Stan Lenton and
Anita Rimel came to the terminal with the car and took him to Birkbeck for a
light lunch. He then went straight to a College meeting where he began to feel
ill. So he left it after saying — the last words he remembered — 'I object'. He
went to the office to sign papers, then to the Torrington Square flat and lay
down and fell asleep. When he woke up he found his left side was paralysed. He
asked Eileen, who was with him, to get in touch with the clinic. When the
doctor came, rather delayed by out-patients, he sent straight away for an
ambulance and transferred Bernal to hospital.
After his first stroke, he gradually recovered. He asked the doctor how long he
had to live. The doctor replied that it was very uncertain, since Bernal might
not live after a second stroke. In this he was wrong. Bernal had several strokes
which he survived, but became increasingly incapacitated. Bernal decided to
start thinking about his Will, distributing — not as most people do, what they
have got (this had been already arranged) — 'but what I have not got, the
problems. I had it all nicely worked out — then I got, what I had not thought of,
Bernal recovered and even managed to travel again — to the Executive Com-
mittee meeting of the International Union of Crystallography in Amsterdam
and to the World Peace Council Meeting in Helsinki (where Neruda wrote a
poem to him) in 1965. He was sadly again in hospital when Bragg celebrated
the 50th anniversary of the award of the Nobel Prize later that same year. By
1966 he was clearly unable to preside at the Moscow international meeting of the
Union ; regretfully he resigned the presidency in favour of Kathleen Lonsdale.
He contributed a paper however to the proceedings, in collaboration with Harry
Carlisle, one of the wide ranging classificatory papers he delighted in, on
Description of Plate I
(a) J. D. B. and Joseph Needham, 1934, at a theoretical biology meeting.
(b) J. D. B. showing Irving Langmuir reversed spirals in tobacco mosaic virus solution.
1937, B.A., Nottingham.
(c) J. D. B. with Lord Mountbatten and others. 1944, Ceylon.
(d) Kathe Dornberger-Schiff with J. D. B., 1962, E. Berlin.
John Desmond Bernal 71
In 1968 Bernal retired from Birkbeck College. A. J. Caraffi, the Clerk, wrote
to him :
'On your retirement the Governors have asked me to convey to you their
good wishes and to express to you their deep appreciation for all you have
done for, and brought to, the College during your thirty years of professor-
ship. . . .
'There is no doubt that the future will look back on the thirty years as the
peak of achievement in the Faculty of Science — the Faculty because you
know no boundaries and there are countless witnesses among all depart-
ments to the stimulus of your thought and advice. Nor will your excursions
into the Faculty of Arts be forgotten !
'To the College you have brought world-wide renown, and to the world
you have contributed a succession of distinguished scholars. Of these we
have the evidence of the roll, and of the rest there is the record of the galaxy
of talent in science, art and letters, that has passed through the College
because of your presence among us.
'Of the infectious warmth of your affection for Birkbeck and the promo-
tion of its ideals I need not speak, for it is an ever present influence. But it is
an affection to an institution 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.'
He continued to go to scientific meetings as long as he was able, taken in a
wheel chair, and to speak until he lost the power of speech. One memorable
occasion was the X-ray analysis group meeting in Oxford in 1967, when the
structure of chymotrypsin was described by David Blow — though it was a
tremendous effort carrying Bernal up and down the steps of the University
Museum to hear the lectures. Another occasion was the founding meeting of
the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, at the Royal Society in
London. Helen Megaw's last letter to him from Cambridge told him that the
first year of Part II Crystallography had just been completed; the twelve
successful graduates celebrated with a dinner and sent the menu with all their
signatures to greet him.
In his long illness one would often find him very wretched, suffering from his
lack of power any longer to change the state of the world, which he saw as
increasingly perilous and miserable. Too much that he had hoped for had not
Description of Plate II
(a) Wake of a goldfish swimming in a dilute solution of Tobacco mosaic virus (between
crossed nicols). Photograph by Ramsey and Muspratt.
(6) Part of a heap of compressed plasticine spheres.
(c) Isolated polyhedra from compressed plasticine spheres.
(d) Model of liquid structure; spheres in random close packing; built by J. D. B.
(e) Part of model of liquid structure turned to show lining up of spheres.
(/) J. D. B., John Kendrew, D.H. and David Phillips looking at a newly constructed
model of lysozome — a maze. 28 March, 1965. Photograph, Frank Hermann,
copyright The Sunday Times.
72 Biographical Memoirs
happened. And yet he could still be delighted by nature and by scientific
discoveries — the structure of insulin, the exploration of space. One of my last
happy memories of him is seeing him examining a little sample Professor
Tolansky brought to him, of minute silica spheres from the surface of the moon.
During his last years he lived very quietly with Eileen, often visiting Margot
Heinemann at weekends. His children and grandchildren and many friends
came to see him. As might be expected, his four children have adopted very
different careers. Of the two eldest, children of Eileen, Michael J. M. Bernal
became a mathematician and is now University Reader in Numerical Analysis at
Imperial College ; he enjoyed sometimes helping his father with the computing
problems presented by the liquid state. Egan, like his grandfather, is a farmer.
Martin Gardiner Bernal, the son of Margaret Gardiner, studied Chinese, became
a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge and is now Associate Professor in
Government at Cornell University. Susanna Jane Bernal, the daughter of
Margot Heinemann, qualified in medicine and hopes to be a paediatrician.
He died at home peacefully on 15 September 1971.
When he was 25 Bernal wrote in 'Microcosm':
'My thoughts and words and actions come from my own joy in living,
I seem to see before me' thousands of possible thoughts and actions, all
worth while doing, all delightful, and my life fills itself thinking, saying
and doing them. That is the essential spring of life in me that will stop,
I hope, only with my death. Maybe it will sooner. Poverty or disease or
unhappy relations might kill it. But I would have to be hard hit so closely
have I knit my life and my love of life. . . .
I see the world building itself up, intricacy after intricacy. Life emerging
adapting, reproducing, transforming new things for old purposes till man
comes. . . . Lastly ourselves among tottering civilizations. Seeing waste
and ignorance, deliberate wrong from minds twisted by old ideas and ill
adjusted lives. I see all this, powerless to change all but some tiny fraction
of the whole, imperceptible even to me. Yet I am part of man's life and my
work is a part of the effort that has changed and is changing things.
Whither ? Why ? I do not know. I do know that I am happy to be born in
my own time, a time of stress, but a time of hope and of new born know-
ledge. I find that at last here is a time when I can live my life just as I want
to, and that a time will be coming when everyone will be doing the same.
But I will be dead by that time and lovers will be playing on my grave.'
We were in Hanoi on September 16 1971. Nguyen Van Huong and Dang Vinh
Thien from the State Committee for Science and Technology came to us and said,
'We have very sad news for you. John Bernal died yesterday.' They had never met
him, but thought of him as someone greatly to be loved and admired, whose death
was a loss to everyone. We talked about him, what he was like, his marvellous
breadth of knowledge, his intense interest in science and in people. I showed
them the lecture I had written partly about him for Birkbeck, near the end of
John Desmond Bernal 73
which I had recalled once saying, joking, that if I were given a piece of the
moon, I would pass it on to J. D. Bernal, who would know what to do with it.
Thien said, 'and when they got to the moon, they did give him some, didn't
they ?,' and I, thinking of Tolansky bringing the silica spheres, said 'yes.' For a
moment the world was one as he wished it to be.
I had first seen him over forty years before, young and shock-headed, giving
an Alembic Club lecture in Oxford on the metallic state. I knew nothing about
metals (not then a subject for the average chemistry student). I did not think of
working on them myself but I have never lost the fascinated interest he gave me
that day in the extraordinary complicated structures found in metals and alloys.
He himself passed on and started research in many other fields, more than he
could possibly pursue to conclusions himself — though he always enjoyed the
mechanics of problem solving, mathematics, model building, looking down
microscopes. His particular qualities, insight, imagination, ingenuity, a feel for
structures, are nowhere shown better than in the work on the liquid state on
which he spent his own research time in the last ten years of his working life.
But probably his greatest gift was his power to inspire others, his infectious
optimism — that as he talked it seemed clear that the structure of proteins could
be solved, that peace was possible.
Lindestrom-Lang once said of him 'whenever Bernal comes into my laboratory,
he makes me feel that everything I am doing is absolutely worthwhile.'
J. D. Bernal received many and varied academic and other honours; the
Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1945, the Medal of Freedom with Palms of
the United States, also in 1945, the Lenin Prize for Peace in 1953, and the Medal
of the International Grotius Foundation in 1959. He was elected a Foreign
Member of the Academies of Science of the U.S.S.R., Hungary, Poland,
Romania, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Norway. He was an honorary Professor
of Moscow University, an honorary Doctor of Humboldt University, an
honorary Member of the Societe Francaise de Mineralogie, an honorary Fellow
of Emmanuel College, Cambridge (1965), and Fellow of Birkbeck College
(1969). In 1970 he was appointed to the Order of Cyril and Methodius by the
National Assembly of Bulgaria.
Bernal left his scientific papers to Birkbeck College and some of his personal
papers to Cambridge University. They are all now in Cambridge University
Library where they have been sorted and arranged by Brenda Swann, sup-
ported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. I am particularly grateful to
Brenda Swann for guiding me through the collection, of which I have read
principally the early diaries, material connected with the scientific papers,
published and unpublished, and scientific letters. The archive contains also
a series of tape recordings of memories made by friends and colleagues of
J. D. Bernal at the suggestion of Eileen Bernal, and unpublished accounts of
recent work at Birkbeck prepared as a Festschrift for Bernal on his 70th birthday.
Both of these proved very useful. I am also grateful to the Royal Institution and
74 Biographical Memoirs
to the Bragg family, for permission to quote from the Bragg Archive, and to
Emmanuel College, Cambridge, for information from their records.
I have enjoyed conversations and correspondence about Desmond Bernal's life
and work with many of his family and friends : Eileen Bernal, Kevin and Mary
Bernal, his brother and sister-in-law, at Nenagh, Geraldine Godfrey, his sister,
Michael and Martin Bernal his sons; Margaret Gardiner, Margot Heinemann,
Francis Aprahamian, Harry Carlisle, Kathe Dornberger-SchifT, Paul Ewald,
Robin Hill, Ivor Montagu, Joseph and Dorothy Needham, Linus and Ava Helen
Pauling, Max Perutz, Tony and Bill Pirie, Anita Rimel, Dick and Anne Synge,
Nora and Peter Wooster, and Solly Zuckerman. I owe a great deal of help
and one paragraph to my husband, Thomas Hodgkin.
The photograph reproduced in the frontispiece was taken by Ramsay &
1 . Ferdinand Columbus : Life of Columbus.
2. Cambridge University archives.
3. Letter from W. L. Bragg to J. D. Bernal, Cambridge University archives.
4. Royal Institution archives.
5. Ewald, P. P. and numerous crystallographers 1962 Fifty years of X-ray diffraction. Published
for the International Union of Crystallography by N. V. A. Oosthoek's Uitgeversmaat-
schappij, Utrecht, The Netherlands.
6. Carlisle, C. H. & Crowfoot, D. 1945 Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 184, 64.
7. Crowfoot, D. & Dunitz, J. D. 1948 Nature, Lond. 162A, 608.
8. Knobler, C, Romers, C, Braun, P. B. & Hornstra, J. 1972 Acta crystallogr. B28, 2097.
9. Hull, S. E., Leban, I., Main, P., White, P. S. & Wolfson, M. M. 1976 Acta crystallogr. B 32,
10. Schimper, A. F. W. 1880 Z. Kristallogr. Kristallgeom. 5, 131.
11. Franklin, R. E. 1956 Nature, Lond. 177, 929.
12. Holmes, K. C, Stubbs, G. J., Mandelkow, E. & Gallwitz, U. 1975 Nature, Lond. 254, 192.
13. Champnes, T. N., Bloomer, A. C, Bricogne, G., Butler, P. J. G. & Klug, A. 1976 Nature,
Lond. 259, 20.
14. Harrison, S. C, Olson, A. J., Schutt, C. E., Winkler, F. K. & Bricogne, G. 1978 Nature,
Lond. 276, 368.
15. Bernal, J. D. Stories written for Boris Polovoi, U.S.S.R. for 'Real Men of the Western
16. Finney, J. L. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 319, 479, 495. Barnes, P., Finney, J. L., Nicholas, J.D.
& Quinn, J. E. 1979 Nature, Lond. 282, 459.
17. Memorial Meeting, Birkbeck, 24 January 1972.
18. Memories recorded for Eileen Bernal, Cambridge University Archives.
19. Wright, W. 1958 Acta crystallogr. 11, 632.
20. Furberg, S., Ph.D. Thesis, London University, 1949.
21. Carlisle, C. H., Palmer, R. A., Majumdar, S. K., Grimsby, B. A. & Yeats, G. R. 1974
J. tnolec. Biol. 85, 1.
22. Birkbeck Festschrift, Cambridge University Archives.
23. Gardiner, M. 1978 New Left Review 98, July-August, 43.
The following bibliography has been compiled from fuller versions prepared by Anita Rimel
and Brenda Swann. It should be noted that in addition to the papers included, Professor
Bernal wrote many articles on general topics that are not listed below.
1924 The structure of graphite. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 106, 749-773.
John Desmond Bernal 75
1926 On the interpretation of X-ray single crystal rotation photographs. Proc. R. Soc. Lond.
A 113, 117-160.
1928 The complex structure of the copper-tin inter-metallic compounds. Nature, Lond. 122, 54.
1927 A universal X-ray photogoniometer. J. scient. Instrum.
-29 1 : 1927 4, 273-284.
2: 1928 5, 241-250; 281-290.
3: 1929 6,314-318.
4: 1929 6, 343-353.
1929 The problem of the metallic state. Trans. Faraday Soc. 25, 367-379. (Also Metallwirt.
1930, 9, 983.)
(With Sir William Bragg, P. Ewald & C. Mauguin) Abstracting schemes: 1. Single
substance X-ray determination. 2. Series of substances X-ray investigations. Z.
Kristallogr. Kristallgeom. 79, 495.
X-rays and crystal structure. In Encyclopaedia Britannica, (14th ed.), vol. 23, pp. 849-861.
1930 (With W. A. Wooster) Crystallography, 1928-9. A. Rep. chem. Soc. 26, 276-307.
The place of X-ray crystallography in the development of modern science. Radiology 15,
1931 The crystal structure of natural amino acids. Z. Kristallogr. Kristallgeom. 78, 363.
Ergebnisse der modernen metallforschung. Ergebn. tech. Rontgenk. 2, 200-239. (Also
Chem. Zentr. 1, 183-184, 1934.)
1932 The significance of Rontgen crystallography in the development of modern scienec.
Usp. Khim. 1, 273.
(With W. A. Wooster) Crystallography 1930-1931. A. Rep. chem. Soc. 28, 266-321.
Crystal structure of vitamin D and related compounds. Nature, Lond. 129, 277-278.
A crystallographic examination of oestrin,^. Soc. chem. Ind. Lond. 51, 259 (Biochem. Soc).
Carbon skeleton of the sterols. J. Soc. chem. Ind. Lond. 51, 466.
Properties and structures of crystalline vitamins. Nature, Lond. 129, 721.
Crystal structure of complex organic compounds. Lecture at Manchester University,
13 July. Printed by Metropolitan Vickers.
Rotation of molecules in crystals. Nature, Lond. 129, 870.
Rotation of carbon chains in crystals. Z. Kristallogr. Kristallgeom. 83, 153-155.
(With N. W. Pirie) Cuprous glutathione, with a note on the crystallography of glutathione.
Biochem. J. 26, 75-79.
(With W. T. Astbury & T. C. Marwick) X-ray analysis of the structure of the wall of
Valonia ventricosa. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 109, 443-450.
1933 (With Dorothy Crowfoot) The structure of Diels' hydrocarbon C lo H 16 . Chemy Ind.
Contribution on the chemical constitution of oestrin. J. Soc. chem. Ind. 52, 288. (Disc.
(With R. H. Fowler) Theory of water and ionic solution with particular reference to
hydrogen and hydroxyl ions. J', chem. Phys. 1, 515-548.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) Crystal structure of vitamin B x and of adenine hydro-
chloride. Nature, Lond. 131, 911-912.
Liquid crystals. (Account of conference of 'Liquid Crystals and Anisotropic Melts',
organized by the Faraday Society, 24-25 April.) Nature, Lond. 132, 86-89.
(With J. Iball & J. Monteath Robertson) Structure of chrysene and l:2:5:6-di-
benzanthracene in the crystalline state. Nature, Lond. 132, 750-751.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) Crystalline phases of some substances studied as liquid
crystals. Trans. Faraday Soc. 29, 1032-1049.
(With R. H. Fowler) Note on the pseudo-crystalline structure of water. Trans. Faraday
Soc. 29, 1049-1056.
1934 Application of X-ray methods in the food industry. Chemy Ind. 12, 1075-1077.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot, B. Robinson & W. A. Wooster) Crystallography 1932-3.
A. Rep. chem. Soc. 30, 360-430.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) X-ray photographs of crystalline pepsin. Nature, Lond.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) X-ray crystallographic measurements on some derivatives
of cardiac aglucones. J. Soc. chem. Ind. Lond. 53, 953-956
76 Biographical Memoirs
1936 Heavy hydrogen. (Contribution to a Discussion.) Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 144, 24-25.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) Use of centrifuge in determining the density- of small
crystals. Nature, Lond. 134, 809-810.
National scientific research. Progress 2, no. 12, 361; 364.
1935 Science and industry. Contribution to The frustration of science, p. 42. Geo. Allen &
The structure of molecules and of the ideal lattice, and deviations of real crystals from the
ideal lattice structure. Contributions to Int. Conf. on The solid state of matter, London,
1934. Phys. Soc. Pubis 11, 50-51; 119-121.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) The use of the centrifuge in determining the density of
small crystals. Nature, Lond. 135, 305.
(With G. Tamm) Zero point energv and physical properties of H 2 and D..O. Nature
Lond. 135, 229-230.
Study of X-rays. Nature, Lond. 136, 661-662. (Review of 'X-rays in theory and experi-
ment' by A. H. Compton & S. K. Allison.)
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) The molecular shape of calciferol and related substances.
J. Soc. chem. Ind. Lond. 54, 701-702.
(With E. Djatlowa, 1. Kasarnowsky, S. Reichstein & A. Ward) The structure of
strontium and barium peroxides, Sr0 2 , and BaO a . Z. Kristallogr. Kristallogeom. A 92,
Supraconductivity and other low temperature phenomena. (Contribution to a Discussion.)
Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 152, 1-46.
(With Helen Megaw) The function of hydrogen in intermolecular forces. Proc. R. Soc.
Lond. A 151, 384^120.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) The structure of some hydrocarbons related to the sterols
J. chem. Soc, Trans, part I, 93-100.
Review of 'Distortion of metal crystals' by C. F. Elam. Cambridge Rev. 57, 33.
Review of 'The diffraction of X-rays and electrons by amorphous solids, liquids, and
gases', by J. T. Randall. J. phys. Chem. 39, 1249.
Review of 'International tables for the determination of crystal structures' (ed .W. H.
Bragg, M. von Laue & C. Hermann). Z. Kristallogr. Kristallgeom. 92, 315-320.
1936 (With Dorothy Crowfoot, R. Evans & A. F. Wells) Crystallography 1934-5. A. Rep-
Chem. Soc. 32, 181-242.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) X-ray crystallographic data on the sex hormones. Z.
Kristallogr. Kristallgeom. 93, 464-480.
The history of science. Scient. Wkr 9, no. 3. (Essay review of 'A history of science and
technology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries', by A. Wolf.)
Essay review of 'The solid state of matter. Vol. II of Papers and Discussions of the
International Conference on Physics, London, 1934'. Published by the Physical
Society, 1935. Sci. Prog. 30, 546-549.
X-ray crystal analysis and organic chemistry. 33rd Bedson Lecture at Armstrong College,
Newcastle upon Tyne, 21 February. Chem. Age, Lond. 34, 255-256. (Also Nature,
Lond. 137, 391.)
Contribution to geophysical discussion at Royal Astronomical Society, 24 April. Observa-
tory 59, 268.
(With F. C. Bawden, N. W. Pirie& I. Fankuchen) Liquid crystal substances from virus
infected plants. Nature, Lond. 138, 1051-1052.
1937 Architecture and science. Jl R. Inst. Br. Archit. 44, no. 16, 805. (Also in 'The freedom of
X-ray studies and the structure of proteins. (Contribution to a Discussion.) Trans. Faraday
Soc. 33, 1143.
Viscosity of liquids. (Contribution to a Discussion.) Proc. R. Soc. Lond. 163, 320-323.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot) X-ray crystallography and the chemistry of the sterols and
the sex hormones. Chem. Weekbl. 34, no. 2, 19-22.
The structure of liquids. Nature, Lond. 139, 272-274. (With contributions to the Dis-
cussion of the Faraday Society, Edinburgh, 1936.)
An attempt at a molecular theory of the liquid structure. Trans. Faraday Soc. 33, 189,
part 1, 27-40.
John Desmond Bernal 77
1937 Structure tvpes of protein 'crystals' from virus infected plants. Nature, Lond. 139,
Scientific research for Britain. 19th Century and after, May.
X-rays and the food and chemical industries (Abstract). Advmt Sci. Lond. A 334. Pro-
ceedings of the Nottingham Meeting. (Also Food Manufacturing 12, 427-428.)
Science and civilisation. Contribution to The mind in chains (ed. C. Day Lewis), p. 185.
1938 Associated liquids. (Contribution to a Chemical Society Discussion.) Chemy Ind. 57, 160-
(With I. Fankuchen & D. Riley) Structure of the crystals of tomato bushy stunt virus
preparations. Nature, Lond. 142, 1075.
Geometrical factors in reactions involving solids. Trans. Faraday Soc. 34, 834-839.
Rayons-X et structure des proteins. J. Chim. Phys. 35, 179-184.
Virus proteins — structure of the particles. (Contribution to a Discussion.) Proc. R. Soc.
Lond. B 125, 299-301.
A speculation on muscle. Perspectives in biochemistry. (Presentation Volume to Sir
Frederick Gowland Hopkins), pp. 45-65. Cambridge University Press.
An X-ray study of chymotrypsin and haemoglobin. Nature, Lond. 141, 523-524.
Molecular architecture of biological systems. (Four lectures to the Royal Institution,
25 January; 1, 8 and 15 February. Summaries published.)
Crystallographic relations of seismology. Advmt Sci. Lond. A,A*, 404. (Proc. Cambridge
Meeting) (Also The Times, 25 August.)
The hydroxyl bond in clay minerals. Advmt Sci. Lond. B, 404 (Proc. Cambridge Meeting.)
Science in the service of man. Nature, Lond. 141. 1075. (Review of 'Science for the citizen'
by Lancelot Hogben.)
1939 X-ray evidence for the structure of the protein molecule. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 170
75-78; B 127, 36-39.
Vector maps and the cyclol hypothesis. Nature, Lond. 143, 74-75.
The structure of proteins. Proc. R. Instn Gt Br. 30, part 3, 541-557. (Also Nature, Lond.
(With I. Fankuchen & D. Riley) X-rays and the cyclol hypothesis. Nature, Lond. 143,
Science in a changing world. Nature, Lond. 144, 3. (Review of 'Modern science — a study
of physical sciences in the world today' by Hyman Levy.)
The structure of matter. Modern Q. 2, no. 3, 270.
Review of 'An Introduction to crystal chemistry' by R. C. Evans. Z. Kristallogr. Kristall-
geom. 102, 79-80.
1940 M. V. Lomonosov: 1711-1765. Nature, Lond. 146, 16.
Structural units in cellular physiology. The cell and protoplasm. (Proc. 10th Symp. of the
Am. Ass. Adv. Sci. on the Cell, 1939.) Am. Ass. Adv. Sc. (Washington), no. 14, pp.
The hydrogen bond. (Contribution to a Discussion.) Trans. Faraday Soc. 36, 912-922.
(With Dorothy Crowfoot & I. Fankuchen) X-ray crystallography and the chemistry
of the sterols. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 239, 135-182.
The physics of air raids. Proc. R. Instn Gt Br. 31, 262-279. (Also Nature, Lond. 1941
X-ray evidence on size and structure of plant virus preparations. Rep. Third Int. Congr.
of Microbiology (1939); Section on 'The nature and characteristics of filterable viruses'
(ed. R. St John-Brooke.)
Science teaching in general education. Sci. Soc. 4, no, 1. Winter: Sci. Educ. 1945 29, 233;
Sch. Sci. Rev. 1946 no. 102, March. (Also in The freedom of necessity.)
1941 Science and Marxist philosophy. Natvre, Lond. 148, 280, (Rep. Symposium on 'The
dialectics of nature' and 'The origin of the family' by Frederick Engels.)
(With I. Fankuchen) X-ray and crystallographic studies of plant virus preparations.
J. gen. Physiol. 25, part 1 : 111-165; part 2: 120-146; part 3: 147-165.
Present day science and technology in the USSR. Nature, Lond. 148, 360.
1942 The problem of the origin of life. Broadcast Discussion with Sir William Bragg, Eleventh
in the Series entitled 'Science lifts the veil'. British Council Publication.
78 Biographical Memoirs
1942 Comenius' visit to England and the rise of scientific societies in the seventeenth century.
Contribution in 'The teacher of nations'. Cambridge University Press. (Also in The
freedom of necessity.)
Physical sciences in the USSR. Nature, Lond. 149, 545. (Also Chem. Prod 5 nos 11-12
Sir William Bragg Memorial Lecture to the Chemical Society. Typescript only. Un-
published owing to war conditions.
Science in the war effort. Nature, Lond. 149, 71. (Also Scient. Wkr Februarv-March
The effect of high explosives on structures.^. Inst. elec. Engrs 89, 171-174.
E. A. Nahum (Obituary) Nature, Lond. 150, 341-342.
1944 Transformation in science. Contribution to the series 'This changing world'. Geo.
Routledge, No. 2. (Also in The freedom of necessity.)
1945 The future of X-ray analysis. Nature, Lond. 155, 713-715.
British industry and science. New Statesman, 1 : 29, 350; 2: 29, 386. (Also in The freedom
The social relations of science. (The Truman Wood Lecture to the Royal Society of
Arts.) Jl R. Soc. Arts 93, no. 4697, 458; Nature, Lond. 155, 703.
New frontiers of the mind — the atomic age. Compass, December; The Nation, September,
p. 201 (with the title 'Everybody's atom'); New Statesman 30, August, p. 104. (Also in
The freedom of necessity.)
1946 Science in architecture. Jl R. Inst. Br. Archit. 52, 155; Builder, Lond. 170, February,
p. 195. (Also in The freedom of necessity.)
Organisation of building science research. 3tf R. Inst. Br. Archit. 53, 236; Builder Lond
170, March, p. 242.
The social responsibility of science. Contribution to the B.B.C. series 'The challenge of
our time', March; The Listener, 4 April. (Also in The freedom of necessity.)
Shaw the scientist. Contribution to 'G.B.S. 90', Hutchinson. (Also in The freedom of
Lessons of the war for science. Rep. Prog. Phys. 10, 418. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A (1975),
342, 555-574. (Also in The freedom of necessity.)
Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution, 23 November 1945.
International scientific organisation. Pilot Papers 1, no. 3, 20. (Also in The freedom of
The past and future of X-ray crystallography. J. chem. Soc. pp. 643-646. (The Hueo-
Muller Lecture.) *
Swelling and shrinking. (Contribution to a Discussion.) Trans. Faraday Soc 42 B 1-5
Also Nature, Lond. 158, 571-572.)
Dissymmetrie moleculaire. In Report of Congress on the 50th Anniversary of the death of
Pasteur, p. 208. (Also in Science and industry in the nineteenth century.)
The place of scientific societies in the New World. Presidential Address to the Jubilee
Congress of the South-Eastern Union of Scientific Societies, Tonbridge Wells. Report
Introduction to symposium on 'The shrinkage and cracking of cementive materials',
8 May. Proceedings published by the Society of Chemical Industry pp. 6-7, 1947!
(Also Nature, Lond. 158, 11-14.)
1947 Structure research on organic compounds in G.B., 1939-1946. Paper given at third
Annual Conference of the X-ray Analysis Group of the Institute of Physics 9-11 July
1946. J. sci. Instrum. 24, 6-7.
(With C. H. Carlisle) A simple stage goniometer for use in connection with X-ray
crystal analysis, y. sci. Instrum. 24, 107.
The study of clay minerals. Clay Miner. Bull. No. 1.
The structure and interactions of protein molecules. Proc. Sixth Int. Congr. on experimental
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