09 March 2019
The Limerick roots and
legacy of JD Bernal,
radical Irish scientist
Earlier this week, after visiting the Bernal family grave in a quiet corner of the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, I paid a brief visit in the afternoon to the Bernal Institute on the campus of the University of Limerick.
My exploration of the Sephardi ancestry of John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), through the Genese and Bernal families, was another interesting journey through the stories of many interesting Sephardi families on these islands.
But these two interesting visits this week also reminded me of the fascinating story of JD Bernal, one of the most interesting Irish-born scientists of the last century who was born near Nenagh, Co Tipperary, and who had strong family roots in 19th century Limerick.
John Desmond Bernal, crystallographer, molecular physicist, social scientist, committed Communist and campaigner for world peace, was born in Brookwatson, Nenagh, on 10 May 1901. He was the eldest child of Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919) and his wife Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Miller, who had married the previous year.
Samuel Bernal’s father, John Bernal Elizabeth (Bessie). Samuel’s father, JD Bernal’s grandfather, John Bernal (1819-1898) of Albert Lodge, Laurel Hill, Limerick, was born Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese, His ancestors had been Sephardic Jews who lived in Venice from at least the mid-17th century. The family moved through Amsterdam to London, and he arrived in Ireland in the 1840s from London.
When Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese settled in Ireland, he changed his name to John Bernal and joined the Church of Ireland. He married Catherine Maria Carroll in Dublin in 1841, and she brought up their children as Roman Catholics.
Samuel Bernal was born in Limerick on in Limerick on 22 May 1864. At the age of 20, he ran away from Limerick to Australia in 1884, and worked on a sheep farm. When his father died in 1898, he returned to live in Ireland and at first stayed with his sister Margaret Riggs-Miller at Tullaheady, just outside Nenagh.
Later that year, he bought the farm in Brookwatson on the Portumna road and built the present house. On a visit to the continent, he met his future wife, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Miller (1869-1951), in Belgium. Bessie was an energetic, educated and much-travelled woman, the daughter of an Irish-born Presbyterian minister from Co Antrim, the Revd William Young Miller of Illinois. She became a Roman Catholic before they married on 9 January 1900.
They were the parents of five children, three sons and two daughters:
1, John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), born Nenagh 10 May 1910, died in London 15 September 1971.
2, Kevin O’Carroll Diaz Bernal (1903-1996), who continued to run the family farm. He was born Nenagh on 22 January 1903, married Margaret Mary Sinnott (1913-1995) and died on 17 January 1996.
3, Catherine Elizabeth Geraldine (1906- ), born Nenagh.
4, Fiona Laetitia Evangeline (1908-1908), died at the age of nine weeks.
5, Godfrey Francis Johnston Bernal (1910-2005), born Nenagh, married Ellen Marie Rose McCarthy, died January 2005.
There was less than two years between John Desmond and Kevin and as boys they were very close for many years. At first, they both went to the local convent school, but they later went to the Church of Ireland national school in Barrack Street, Nenagh.
However, the young John Desmond was a devout Catholic throughout his school days.
In 1910, Samuel Bernal decided to send his two eldest sons to Hodder Place and Stonyhurst, a Jesuit-run public school in Lancashire. At Stonyhurst, he worked his way through the school library each Sunday after Mass. After a short time at Bedford, he went on to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1919 for an undergraduate degree in Natural Science.
There he developed a strong interest in the developing science of X-ray crystallography. At Cambridge too he became an active Marxist, beginning a lifelong commitment to Communism.
From Cambridge, he joined WH Bragg in his research at the Royal Institution (RI) in 1923. In 1927, he became the first lecturer in structural crystallography at Cambridge, and he was appointed the assistant director of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1934. However, he was refused fellowships at Emmanuel College and Christ’s College and tenure by Ernest Rutherford, who is said to have disliked him.
Bernal remained at Cambridge until 1937, when he obtained a chair in Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and was the head of the newly established department of crystallography.
His research included the first X-ray diffraction pattern of a protein and ground-breaking work on the structure of viruses and proteins that lead to the foundation of molecular biology. This development fundamentally changed the focus of biochemical research and the understanding of biological activity as it allowed for the 3-D chemical structure of the component species to be examined.
At Birkbeck, founded the Biomolecular Research Laboratory in 1948, and it later became the internationally renowned Crystallography Department. As Chair of Physics at Birkbeck College, London, and later as Professor of Crystallography, he presided over a centre of excellence that was celebrated worldwide. After graduating from Cambridge, he spent most of his life at Birkbeck College, London, as a research scientist.
Bernal specialised in the identification of new fields to explore but rarely stayed long enough to fully civilise the area, which he left to trusted colleagues. He wrote several books, mainly on the role of science in society. He also published 224 scientific papers and almost 400 articles of a non-scientific nature. He lectured regularly on scientific and political topics at conferences worldwide and was involved in the foundation of UNESCO.
During World War II, Bernal worked on operational research, contributing to the planning of the D-day landings and was awarded the US Medal of Freedom in 1945. Later he become interested in rebuilding Britain and initiated research into the structure and properties of metal hydroxides and the silicate components of cements.
Bernal had a reputation as a selfless supporter of young scientists, and his peers referred to him affectionately as ‘Sage.’ Two of his former students, Dorothy Hodgkin and Max Pertuz, received Nobel prizes for pioneering work in protein crystallography for the first structural determination of vitamin B12 and haemoglobin, respectively. In addition, one of Max Perutz’s students, Francis Crick, received the Nobel Prize for unravelling the structure of DNA.
As a scientist, it is remarkable that he never received a Noble Prize, although three of his students did. Conventional wisdom would have it that he spread himself too wide and was too involved in other matters, to achieve this ultimate accolade.
Bernal was driven by a belief that science and technology would improve the living standards of humanity if properly focused and was a frequent campaigner for peace and demilitarisation in the years after World War II.Although he had supported the Allied war effort and was centrally involved in the planning the Normandy landings, he was often ostracised by the Western powers, with both the US and France refusing him visas in later years.
Over half a century, he met many world leaders including Nehru, Khrushchev, Mao and Ho Chi Minh. He was the first president of the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group, president of the World Peace Council and drafted the constitution for the World Federation of Scientific Workers.
An interesting story is told of Bernal’s meeting with Pablo Picasso in 1950. Picasso had come to England to attend a peace conference that Bernal was instrumental in organising.
When the British government refused visas to the delegates from Eastern Europe, the conference was cancelled and some of those present retired to Bernal’s flat in London for a ‘peace party.’ That evening, Picasso painted a mural on the wall of the flat. The house was demolished later, but the mural survived and is now on display at Birkbeck College, where it is known as ‘Bernal’s Picasso.’
He became somewhat disillusioned with the Soviet Union after the invasion of Hungary in 1956, but he never renounced his socialist beliefs. He was to remain a thorn in the side of Western governments until the end of his days.
He married Alice Eileen Sprague in 1922, a day after receiving his BA at Cambridge. They had two sons, Mike (1926-2016) and Egan (born 1930). He also had two children with the artist Margaret Gardiner (1904-2005) and a daughter with the writer Margaret Heinemann (1913-1992).
John Desmond Bernal suffered a stroke in the summer of 1963, followed by a second stroke in September 1965. He retired in 1968 and died on 15 September 1971.
His legacy was the development of crystallography as a central tool across the sciences. The Bernal Project at the University of Limerick is named after John Desmond Bernal – one of the most influential Irish-born scientists of the 20th century.
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