M.F. Perutz

In 1936, after four years of chemistry at Vienna University, I took the train to Cambridge to seek out the Great Sage, and asked him: ‘How can I solve the riddle of life?’ ‘The riddle of life is in the structure of proteins,’ he replied, ‘and it can be solved only by X-ray crystallography.’ The Great Sage was John Desmond Bernal, a flamboyant Irishman with a mane of fair hair, crumpled flannel trousers and a tweed jacket. We called him Sage, because he knew everything, from physics to the history of art. Knowledge poured from him as from a fountain, unselfconsciously, vividly, without showing off, on any subject under the sun. His enthusiasm for science was unbounded.

He became my PhD supervisor. I could not have wished for a more inspiring one. Yet he was erratic, his desk was chaotic, he was always travelling hither and thither, which left him no time to finish things, and in the middle of one of his discourses he would suddenly look at his watch, remember that he had something more important to do and rush off. His lectures were spontaneous, fluent, wide-ranging, inspiring for the cognoscenti but difficult for undergraduates. When one of them left his notebook behind, we found it empty, with the single heading: ‘Bernal’s Bloody Business’.

Now, 28 years after his death, a book about him has appeared.[*] It is made up of 12 essays by different authors plus his D-Day diaries. Bernal never talked about himself, only about the world around him. Much of what I have now read about the early experiences that shaped his character and outlook made me wish that I had known it when he was still alive. It would have helped me understand him better.

Bernal’s father was an Irish Catholic gentleman farmer married to an American woman of wide education and interests. She brought Desmond up bilingually in English and French, ‘the language of gentleness’, he later remembered. In his early teens, the contrast between the wealthy English Protestant landowners and the abjectly poor Irish Catholic labourers turned Desmond into a revolutionary who vowed to study science in order to make war on the English and drive them out of Ireland.

The young Bernal’s suspicious expression on the dustcover puzzled me until I read of his experiences as a boarder at Bedford School. ‘There I could be tortured, humiliated, waste my time and my interests on dully repetitive games and military drill ... I lived like a hostage in an enemy land. My companions were cheerful thieves and liars, and furtive sexual perverts. I merely thought they were English and kept my hatred of the race to myself.’ But he did make two friends, one of whom wrote home: ‘He is the cleverest chap in the school ... not a bit conceited ... a simply topping chap.’ He left school ‘amazingly ignorant of the world’. He wrote: ‘Cambridge was a liberation. All the richness of thought was open to me ... I could meet for the first time intelligent people and be accepted by them ... I read and talked violently, discursively.’

Halfway through his first term an exhilarating all-night discussion with a friend transformed Bernal’s life; it was like the conversion of St Paul. ‘This socialism was a marvellous thing ... The theory of Marxism, the great Russian experiment, what we could do here and now, it was all so clear, so compelling, so universal ... It would bring the Scientific World State.’ That state’s creation remained Bernal’s Holy Grail for the rest of his life. His Catholic faith peeled away gradually: ‘First God, then Jesus, then the Virgin Mary and lastly the rites of the Church, not for any scientific reason, because I had long before reconciled the phenomenal world of science with the transcendental, symbolic world of revelation.’

Instead of Catholicism, he now fell for Freudianism. Within two days of reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams he was expounding the new religion. I read that book at about the same age 13 years later; it struck me as a far-fetched piece of fiction masquerading as a work of science. But Bernal was, and remained, uncritical.

Soon afterwards he joined the still embryonic Communist Party and remained faithful to it ever after. He often travelled to the Soviet Union, where he was received with honours and was later awarded the Order of Lenin. I was shocked to find him photographed here with Lysenko, that pseudoscientific crook who gained the ear of Stalin for his Lamarckian belief in the inheritance of acquired characters and was responsible for the death in prison of Vavilov, the greatest of Russian geneticists, for the persecution of many other geneticists and for the decline of Russian biology over an entire generation.

In 1923, after taking a degree in physics, Bernal went to the Royal Institution in London to join W.H. Bragg, who had founded the first research school in X-ray crystallography, a method of determining the atomic positions in crystals which his son, W.L. Bragg, had introduced in Cambridge in 1913. The next year, Bernal published a paper on the positions of the carbon atoms in graphite, and later another on a simple method of interpreting X-ray diffraction pictures that was widely adopted. In 1927, he applied for a lectureship in structural crystallography at Cambridge, to run the sub-department in crystallography at the Cavendish Laboratory, which was then headed by Lord Rutherford, the discoverer of the atomic nucleus. C.P. Snow described his job interview:

Bernal had come into the room and sat down. His head was sunk into his chest ... He sat there, looking sullen ... They couldn’t get anything else out of him. Finally, in despair, Professor Hutchinson, who was in the chair, asked him what he would do ... if he were given the job. At which Bernal threw his head back, hair streaming like an oriflamme ... and gave an address, eloquent, passionate, masterly, prophetic, which lasted 45 minutes. There was nothing for it but to elect him.

At Cambridge, Bernal determined the shape of the molecule of cholesterol, showed that the chemists’ formula must be wrong and helped them to correct it, and discovered the rich X-ray diffraction patterns of crystals of proteins and viruses, which opened up a new field of research. He also wrote his monumental book on The Social Function of Science, and co-authored a fundamental paper on the structure of water. In 1939, the outbreak of war found him as professor of physics at Birkbeck College in London.

Bernal had faith in the efficacy of committees. When I was his graduate student, he was reputed to be on 60 of them, mostly devoted to the socialist cause. In the first year of the war he worked on committees persuading the authorities to make better use of science for the war effort. Then, in 1942, Sir John Anderson, the minister responsible for civil defence, commissioned Bernal and the anatomist Solly Zuckerman to report on the physical damage, casualties, effects on absenteeism and morale caused by the German bombing of two typical cities, with a view to assessing the likely effects of British bombing raids on Germany. Anderson did this at the request of Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s scientific advisor. Bernal and Zuckerman chose the cities of Birmingham and Hull. They found no breakdown of morale; any loss of production was almost certainly due to damage done to factories rather than private houses; indirect effects on labour turnover or the health and efficiency of workers were insignificant. Cherwell jumped the gun, however. A week before he received Bernal and Zuckerman’s report, he sent a minute to Churchill claiming that the effects of bombing British cities had confirmed his view that such raids could bomb Germany into submission. Other scientists disputed this, but Cherwell won the day. His policy caused the wasted deaths of tens of thousands of RAF men and German civilians, the misuse of vast resources and the senseless destruction of much of Germany’s cultural heritage. After the war, analyses of the effects of Allied bombing on German war production confirmed Bernal and Zuckerman’s findings: it had continued to rise despite the bombing.

In the same year, Lord Mountbatten, then Chief of Combined Operations, took Bernal and Zuckerman onto his staff to help with the planning of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Bernal developed methods of determining the gradients of the beaches from aerial photographs of the breakers, and their consistency from geological data and his own observations made during holidays in Normandy. He worked closely with the military planners and was invited to join the troops landing there on D-Day in June 1944. His vivid diaries of the landings are the highpoint of the book. The day before, Bernal went to the military HQ:

We lay on the grass and talked, estimating prospects of success or failure on the different beaches ... I would not really influence the things that were happening there ... but I felt that I had to be there, that I should never forgive myself if it did happen and I had not been ...

   Already the whole expedition was on the sea. The wireless man came in. He was most astonished. ‘They are well within range and they have not spotted us yet.’ Everything very quiet and peaceful and on edge.

The next morning, D-Day, ‘it seemed to be going so much better than we had hoped,’ and Bernal crossed the Channel. As the boat approached Normandy, ‘bombs began to fall ... I found to my surprise that my teeth were chattering.’ The next day he went ashore, and ‘felt very irritated at the stupid slipshod construction’ of the German fortifications. The day after that they sailed along the coast: ‘The battle of Bernières seemed to be over but we were told the town was full of snipers. I badly wanted to see the church but ... had to admit that I would feel a fool if I were shot for the love of Norman architecture.’ On the wall of a house in Courseulles he saw ‘an eagle grasping a swastika-covered world in the middle, on one side “Unser Glaube ist der Sieg” ’ – ‘Our faith is victory.’ That evening he ‘had to go back. I did not want to: I had got attached to the place and its strange inconsequent life, its near-peacefulness and distant dangers. I was taken back by the same torpedo boat that had taken me over ... I fell asleep standing.’

After Bernal’s death, Mountbatten wrote an appreciation of his war work, concluding:

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 the war.

After the war, Bernal had a hard time getting research going again at the heavily damaged Birkbeck College, but in 1953 things looked up with the coming of Rosalind Franklin, a skilful and patient experimenter, and Aaron Klug, an outstanding theoretician; they continued Bernal’s prewar research on the structure of viruses. As before, much of his own time went on political work and travels for The Cause.

In 1963, he suffered the first of several strokes which finally incapacitated him. When I visited him in London in 1967 to show him my three-dimensional map of haemoglobin, the climax of the work I had started under his supervision thirty years earlier, it gave him enormous pleasure without any sign of envy that I had solved the great puzzle of protein structure that he had set himself. He died in 1971.

People often ask me why Bernal did not win a Nobel Prize. The answer is that he started many things, but lacked the single-mindedness and patience to carry them through. He wasted his great talents on futile committees and travels. He was a prolific source of ideas and gave them away generously. During the long, lean years when most of my colleagues thought that I was wasting my time on an insoluble problem, Bernal would drop in like the advent of spring, inbuing me with enthusiasm and fresh hope. A Danish colleague once said to me: ‘When Bernal comes to visit me, he makes me feel that my research is really worthwhile.’ I loved him.

[*] J.D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics, edited by Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian (Verso, 324 pp., £25, 1 May 1999, 1 85984 854 0).