Century of Endeavour

JD Bernal and the 'Science and Society' Theme

(c) Roy Johnston 2001

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

I have here expanded and adapted, for a publication projected by the Institute of Physics on Irish physicists, edited by Andrew Whitaker in Queens University Belfast, an earlier contribution to a Royal Irish Academy publication, edited by Dr Charles Mollan and currently in preparation, on the theme of 'who was who' among scientists of Irish origin. This basically constitutes an overview of the 1999 Verso publication listed below.

John Desmond Bernal / Physicist / Marxist / Science Populariser / 1901 - 1971


Introductory overview

Bernal was born on a farm near Nenagh Co Tipperary on May 10 1901; he died on Sept 15 1971 in London after a long illness, having suffered a first stroke in 1963 and another in 1968.

He married Eileen Sprague, whom he had met while in Cambridge, in 1922. There were two sons: Michael (b 1926) who lectured in physics in Imperial College, now retired, and Egan (b 1930) who became a farmer in Suffolk.

Being somewhat polygamous by nature, he had another son Martin (b 1937) by Margaret Gardiner, and a daughter Jane (b 1953) by Margot Heinemann. Martin Bernal has specialised in linguistics and ancient history, and is the author of 'Black Athena', a controversial book which links Greek civilisation primarily to Africa; he is currently in Cornell University. Jane Bernal is a consultant psychiatrist at St George's Hospital Medical School, University of London.

Bernal lived until 1922 at the family farm, Brookwatson, on the Portumna road, near Nenagh Co Tipperary. He had two brothers, Kevin and Godfrey; the former took over the family farm. JD Bernal subsequently lived in Cambridge and in London, at various addresses, currently under plaque consideration by English Heritage. There is also a plaque, in the Irish scientists series, under consideration for a suitable location in Nenagh town.

He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1937, and then Professor of Physics, Birkbeck College, London University, in 1938. He was Scientific Adviser to Combined Operations under Lord Mountbatten, 1943. Post-war he became President of the World Peace Council from 1958 to 1963, an honorary post which he held from 1958 to 1963, in succession to Frederic Joliot-Curie.

Family Background

The Bernal family has Sephardic Jewish origins; they are on record in Limerick from the 1840s, where his grandfather John Bernal was an auctioneer, furniture dealer, and railway company director. His father Samuel emigrated in Australia in 1884 and worked a sheep-farm, returning in 1898 to live with his elder sister, Mrs Riggs-Miller, near Nenagh Co Tipperary, helping with the management of her farm. Shortly afterwards he bought the farm, Brookwatson, also near Nenagh, where JD Bernal was born. Bernal's mother Elizabeth Miller was American, with a California and New Orleans background, and experience of Stanford and the Sorbonne. Sam had met her in Belgium, when travelling the continent with his sister. Her parents were Presbyterian, her father being a Minister in San Josť, California. Elizabeth, according to the requirement of the time, converted to Catholicism to marry Samuel, much to her parents' disapproval. The Bernal family had become Catholic in their Limerick period(1).

Early Irish influences

Bernal was initially educated locally; he and his younger brother Kevin went first to the Nenagh convent school, then to the Protestant school in Barrack St, this being regarded as preferable to the boys school run by the Christian Brothers. The building once occupied by this school is the prime candidate for locating the Bernal plaque.

Bernal picked up locally an early interest in science. In his teens he was aware of the Birr telescope, with which the Earl of Rosse had some 60 years previously pushed forward the frontiers of telescope design, and was in touch with several other local gentleman-amateur scientists, one of whom, Launcelot Bayly, introduced him to crystallography; with another, one Parker, Bernal went geologising. He developed a feel for industrial technology though contacts with local industry, and the mine works at Shalee.

His mother had wanted to support his scientific inclinations, and researched the Irish educational opportunities, in the end sending him to boarding-school in England, initially to Stonyhurst, then later to Bedford, whence in 1919 he went to Cambridge. There was family religious pressure to take him out of the Protestant school, and the level of teaching of science in Irish Catholic secondary schools, even in the elite Clongowes immortalised by James Joyce, was not up to the standard required by his mother; boarding-school in England was considered necessary.

He was however acutely aware of what was going on in Ireland, and observed it during his vacations, keeping a journal, which is archived in Cambridge. He recorded his support for Redmondite Home Rule, and subsequently for Sinn Fein, which position later under the influence of Cambridge colleagues, primarily Henry Dickinson and Alan Hutt, evolved into Marxism and support for the Bolsheviks(2). The influence of his mother's Protestant background, and early exposure to interaction with the Nenagh protestant community, helped him to avoid identifying the Irish national question with Catholicism, as many had done. During his Bedford period he had been devoutly Catholic, but in Cambridge he recorded how he lost his faith sequentially: '..first God, then Jesus, then the Virgin Mary, and lastly the rites... now I had a quarrel with the Church because I could not help seeing it as an active agent of political reaction..'.

Science and Politics at Cambridge

In Cambridge in his Natural Science Tripos, after a false start in mathematics from which he switched, he took for Part 1 physics, chemistry, geology and mineralogy in 1922. He then went on to concentrate on crystallography, writing for his final-year undergraduate thesis a paper on 'the vectorial geometry of space lattices', and followed with 'the analytic theory of point systems' in which he developed a group-theoretic approach to the space lattices.

This work drew him to the attention of Sir William Bragg, who was then setting up his research team to take advantage of the X-ray diffraction techniques pioneered by von Laue. He worked with Bragg in the Royal Institution until 1927, contributing to the experimental technology by the design of the X-ray photo-goniometer subsequently to be produced by Pye of Cambridge as the standard tool of the domain.

Bernal then went back to Cambridge in 1927 to a lectureship in structural crystallography, where for the next decade he worked on the structure of liquids, inventing the 'statistical geometric' approach to liquid modelling, and on solids of increasing complexity: pepsin, proteins, viruses, identifying the type of helical structures which subsequently led to the discovery of DNA.

Politically Bernal's student Marxism, picked up in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, evolved into an increasingly positive attitude to science and the role of scientists as a political force(3). He retained an interest in Ireland, and his brother Godfrey recollected, for the present writer, his interacting with the German engineers who in the late 1920s were working on the Shannon hydro-electric scheme, which was planned to supply an Irish 'national grid', then an innovative concept.

Bernal with crystallographic instrumentation

Bernal in the Physics Department at Birkbeck College with a Weissenberg camera on a fixed-tube X-ray generator, used for collecting X-ray diffraction patterns from crystals.


Bernal and the War

Bernal's work in crystallography with Bragg led to his appointment to the chair of physics at Birkbeck in 1938, succeeding PMS Blackett. He had little time to settle in, as the war soon started. In the lead-up to the war he had been from 1934 associated with the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group, which was instrumental in transforming the government's attitude to civil defence, analysing the effects of bombs on cities, using scientific modelling and later taking account of Spanish civil war experience. This led to an encounter with Sir John Anderson, the Minister responsible, at an Oxford conference, to which Bernal had been invited by Solly Zuckerman. Surprisingly Bernal and Anderson got on well, and this began Bernal's induction into the process of the application of scientific methods in the planning of the war, both at the strategic level, and in the analysis of tactics based on the existence of innovative weapon systems, such as radar. This innovative approach was later to become known as 'Operational Research' (OR).

In this capacity, as adviser to Lord Mountbatten, he was responsible for the analysis of the suitability of the Normandy beaches for landing troops and equipment, which he did using a combination of historical evidence, geological knowledge, aerial photographs and hydrodynamics of wave motion, resulting in the successful outcome. He also had a hand in the development of the Mulberry floating harbour.

Science and Government

During his Cambridge period he had, thanks to his political activities, picked up much experience of the interactions between science and government, with Marxist insight into the historical background. This led him to publish his seminal 'Social Function of Science' in 1939, which was celebrated in the 1964 festschrift 'the Science of Science', edited by Goldsmith and McKay as the founding text of the thriving scientific study of science itself in a social context, which by then had begun to thrive. These titles are listed below.

Crystallography at Birkbeck

After the war he returned to Birkbeck where he built up the crystallography group, to the extent that it merited a chair, which he occupied from 1964 up to his retirement in 1968, though increasingly incapacitated(4). Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian and also a contributor to the Verso biography published, attributes his first stroke in 1965 to the pressures of academic politics. During this period he supervised the work of Rosalind Franklin, who subsequently contributed to the DNA work for which Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize.

His declining years were spent subject to increasing communication difficulties, though he continued to publish scientific papers with collaborators up to 1969, his last paper being a letter to Nature (with Barnes, Cherry and Finney) on 'anomalous' water.

The Peace Movement

Politically after the war Bernal was increasingly isolated by the 'cold war' environment. He put much effort into the World Peace Council and to the nuclear disarmament movement. He was among the prime movers in initiating the Pugwash conference, which was an important communication channel between the USA and the USSR at leading science and government level during the worst period of the cold war. In this process he kept in the background himself, not wishing to compromise Pugwash by his Marxist associations.

Bernal at the World Peace Council

Khrushchev addressing the World Peace Council; he shares the platform with Bernal, the singer Paul Robeson, Mme Blum (the widow of Leon Blum, who had headed the 1936 'Popular Front' government with socialists and communists) and other notables supportive of the USSR approach to peace politics, at the height of the 'cold war'.


Science and Society

Bernal had a totally integrated and egalitarian approach to science and to politics; for him the works of the technicians and craftsmen were as important as those of the scientists. He regarded this egalitarian teamwork process as being a basis for his visionary model for the socialist society of the future, rather than the flawed state-centralist model in the east. He participated however in the Lysenko debates in the Engels Society, the forum for Marxist scientists in Britain, with JBS Haldane and Hyman Levy, mostly at the philosophical level, but finding it uncomfortable turned his attention subsequently to the peace movement and to the promotion of trade unionism among scientists, having been a founder member of the Association of Scientific Workers. Successive editions of his Science in History (see below) gave declining attention to Lysenko's significance.

Having burned his fingers with the Lysenko episode, in his review of Watson's Double Helix, and of the period, in 1968, Bernal concentrated on evaluating his own lab's relationship to the work, and how they had managed to 'miss the boat', despite having developed the key experimental technology. He was unable to make the leap into the ethical and political problems which subsequently have emerged on the fringes of molecular biology and its applications. It could be said that the 'Lysenko debate' has, in effect, re-surfaced, with a new twist.

Due to Bernal's relative isolation during the Cold War, many of his ideas were developed as a sort of 'Bernalism without Bernal' in various 'science policy research units' during the later 1950s and 1960s. They were taken, with acclamation, to the US by Derek de Solla Price, a Bernal disciple. These units now flourish, in Sussex, Edinburgh, Manchester and elsewhere, usually with some recognition of Bernal's influence(5). There is one in University College Dublin, in the foundation of which the late Professor Patrick Lynch had a hand; the latter was co-author, along with the engineer HMS 'Dusty' Miller, of the 1964 OECD Report 'Science and Irish Economic Development', which was consciously, though implicitly, Bernalist. The authors both on different occasions explicitly admitted to Bernal's influence in the OECD Report context to the present writer, though publicly due to his Marxism Bernal had then in Ireland somewhat the status of a 'non-person'.

Bernal in Ireland however enjoyed something of a 'posthumous rehabilitation', in the form of a Royal Irish Academy discourse by his colleague Dorothy Hodgkin FRS, which took place in 1980 (see below). The vote of thanks was proposed by Tom Hardiman, then the Executive Chairman of the National Board for Science and Technology in Ireland.

Further reading:
[A] On Bernal himself: Dorothy MC Hodgkin FRS, who worked under him in Cambridge in the early 30s, has published a biographical memoir in Vol 26, Biographical Memoirs of FRSs, Dec 1980. She also read a paper in the Royal Irish Academy on Oct 28 1980, based on Bernal's 'Microcosm'; this was published in Vol 81, B, No 3 of the RIA Proceedings on Sept 2 1981.

Helena Sheehan in Dublin City University has a chapter on Bernal in her 'Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, a Critical History (Humanities Press International, 1985 and 1993).

A biography entitled 'Sage' (his nickname) by Maurice Goldsmith, published by Hutchinson in 1980, is based largely on secondary sources, and did not have the support of the family.

A multi-author biography (J D Bernal: a Life in Science and Politics), with insights from people having first-hand experience of his multi-dimensional activity, edited by Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian, was published in 1999 by Verso. Authors include Ritchie Calder, Eric Hobsbawm, Chris Freeman, Hilary & Steven Rose and others.

Abridged versions of the first two chapters of the above, by Ann Synge on the family background and by the present writer on Irish political and scientific influences, were published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society, Vol 46(2), 267-278 and Vol 47(1), 93-101 respectively.

See also P G Werskey, the Visible College, Allan Lane, London 1978, and E A Roberts, the Anglo Marxists.

[B] Bernal's own publications, apart from his numerous scientific papers, include:

The World, the Flesh and the Devil (Cape, 1929),
The Social Function of Science (Routledge Kegan Paul 1939),
The Freedom of Necessity (RKP 1949), Marx and Science (Lawrence and Wishart 1952),
Science and Industry in the 19th Century (RKP 1953, Indiana University press 1970),
World Without War (RKP 1958),
Science in History (Watts 1954, 1957 and 1965),
The Origin of Life (Wiedenfelt & Nicholson 1967),
also posthumously: The Extension of Man: Physics Before 1900 (W&N 1973).

Notes and References

1. See Ch 1 of the Swann-Aprahamian biography (Verso 1999) for the details of the family background, as researched by Ann Synge.

2. See ibid Ch 2, by the present writer, for some analysis of his evolution towards Marxism via Irish nationalism, also his early interests in science and technology in the Irish context, which helped to stimulate his interest in the 'science and society' domain.

3. See ibid Ch 3, by Fred Steward of Aston Business School, Birmingham, whose essay on the complexities of Bernal's political evolution is based on his extensive diaries. See also Bernal's first book The World, the Flesh and the Devil.

4. See ibid Ch 4, by Peter Trent, a Birkbeck colleague, for an evaluation of Bernal as a scientist.

5. See ibid Ch 6, by Hilary and Steven Rose (Bradford, City University, Open University); this chapter throws interesting light on the 'purple, red and blue' strands which Bernal planned for his biography, representing the emotional, political and scientific aspects of his existence.


The author of the foregoing, Dr Roy H W Johnston, is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, having working in the 1950s on the experimental technology of high-energy charged particle detection. He has since been engaged initially in techno-economic modelling, and socio-technical analysis, and has managed an applied-scientific consultancy group at the university-industry interface. He is currently working with a software house on knowledge-base architecture.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999