Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and
‘the godfather of molecular biology’

Maz Perutz (1914-2002) … Nobel Laureate, student of JD Bernal, and the godfather of molecular biology’

Patrick Comerford

During my lecture in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, this afternoon (18 May 2021), I was talking about the Limerick scientist John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), and his roots in Jewish Limerick and how his ancestry can be traced back to some of the leading Sephardic families of Europe.

I also discussed how two of Bernal’s students, Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin, received Nobel prizes, when this honour was denied to Bernal.

The connection between Bernal and Perutz also called me back to my blog series, ‘Tales of the Viennese Jews,’ which I began in November 2019.

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided after my visit to Vienna a year ago to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

Max Ferdinand Perutz (1914-2002) was an Austrian-born molecular biologist at Cambridge who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962 with John Kendrew, for their studies of the structures of haemoglobin and myoglobin. He also received the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1971 and the Copley Medal in 1979.

Perutz has been described as ‘the godfather of molecular biology.’ He worked under JD Bernal, the pioneer in X-ray crystallography, and also fostered the talents of his student Francis Crick alongside post-doc James Watson, who worked in his Cambridge lab before the pair discovered the structure of DNA.

At Cambridge, Perutz founded and chaired (1962-1979) the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), 14 of whose scientists have won Nobel Prizes.

Perutz was born in Vienna on 19 May 1914, the son of Adele ‘Dely’ (Goldschmidt), who was born in Vienna, and Hugo Perutz (1878-1958), a textile manufacturer who was born in Prague. His parents were from Jewish families but had baptised Max a Catholic religion. He later rejected religion but always said he was against offending others for their religious beliefs.

Max Perutz was a cousin of the Austrian novelist and mathematician Leopold Perutz (1882-1957), who was born in Prague, a contemporary of Franz Kafka. His parents hoped Max Perutz would become a lawyer, but he became interested in chemistry at school. Overcoming his parents’ objections, he enrolled as a chemistry undergraduate at the University of Vienna and completed his degree in 1936.

One of his lecturers, Fritz von Wessely, made him aware of the advances being made into biochemistry at the University of Cambridge by a team led by Gowland Hopkins. Perutz he asked Professor Herman Francis Mark who was soon to visit Cambridge to make inquiries with Hopkins about a place for him.

Mark forgot the request, but he had visited John Desmond Bernal, the subject of my lecture this afternoon. At the time, Bernal was looking for a research student to assist him with studies into X-ray crystallography. Perutz was dismayed as he knew nothing about the subject. Mark countered by saying that he would soon learn.

Bernal accepted Perutz as a research student in his crystallography research group at the Cavendish Laboratory. His father had deposited £500 with his London agent to support him. He learnt quickly. Bernal encouraged him to use the X-ray diffraction method to study the structure of proteins. As protein crystals were difficult to obtain, he used horse haemoglobin crystals, and began his doctoral thesis on its structure. Haemoglobin as a subject would occupy him for most of his professional career. He completed his PhD under Lawrence Bragg.

Perutz was rejected by both King’s College and Saint John’s College, and so he applied to and became a member of Peterhouse, saying it served the best food in Cambridge. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse in 1962.

Peterhouse, Cambridge … Max Perutz said it served the best food in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When the Nazis marched into Austria and annexed it in 1938, Perutz’s parents were in imminent danger because of their Jewish identity. They fled to Switzerland, but they lost all their money, and he lost their financial support. At the same time, his cousin the writer and mathematician Leo Perutz, who was living in Vienna, fled to Haifa.

That summer, Perutz was accepted as part of a three-member team to study the conversion of snow into ice in Swiss glaciers. His resulting article for the Proceedings of the Royal Society established him as an expert on glaciers.

Professor Lawrence Bragg at the Cavendish thought that Perutz’s research into haemoglobin had promise and encouraged him to apply for a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to continue his research. The grant enabled Perutz to bring his refugee parents from Switzerland to England in March 1939.

However, on the outbreak of World War II, Perutz was rounded up along with other people of German or Austrian background, and sent to Newfoundland. After several months of internment, he returned to Cambridge. Because of his previous research into the changes in the arrangement of the crystals in different layers of a glacier, he was asked for advice on whether commandos landed in Norway could be hidden in shelters under glaciers. In 1942, he was recruited for Project Habakkuk, a secret project to build an ice platform in that could refuel aircraft in mid-Atlantic. His early experiments on pykrete were carried out in a secret location underneath Smithfield Meat Market in the London.

After World War II, Perutz returned briefly to glaciology, and demonstrated how glaciers flow. He obtained support from the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 1947 for research into the molecular structure of biological systems, and set up the Molecular Biology Unit at the Cavendish Laboratory. The researchers attracted to this new unit included Francis Crick in 1949 and James D Watson in 1951.

While Crick and Watson were determining the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in the early 1950s, they made use of unpublished X-ray diffraction images taken by Rosalind Franklin, shown at meetings and shared with them by Maurice Wilkins, and of Franklin’s preliminary account of her detailed analysis of the X-ray images included in an unpublished progress report for Sir John Randall’s laboratory at King’s College in 1952. Randall and others eventually criticised the way in which Perutz gave a copy of this report to Crick and Watson.

It is debatable whether Watson and Crick should have been given access to Franklin’s results without her knowledge or permission, and before she could publish a detailed analysis of the content of her report. Nor is it clear how important the content of the report had been for their modelling.

In 1953, Perutz showed that diffracted X-rays from protein crystals could be phased by comparing the patterns from crystals of the protein with and without heavy atoms attached. In 1959, he employed this method to determine the molecular structure of the protein haemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood. This work resulted in Perutz sharing the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with John Kendrew in 1962. Today, the molecular structures of several thousand proteins are determined by X-ray crystallography every year.

Perutz was able to suggest in 1970 how the structure of oxy- and deoxy- haemoglobin at high resolution switches between its deoxygenated and its oxygenated states, in turn triggering the uptake of oxygen and then its release to the muscles and other organs. Further work over the next two decades refined and corroborated the proposed mechanism. In addition, he studied the structural changes in a number of haemoglobin diseases and how these might affect oxygen binding.

He hoped the molecule could be made to function as a drug receptor and that it would be possible to inhibit or reverse the genetic errors such as those that occur in sickle cell anaemia. A further interest was the variation of the haemoglobin molecule from species to species to suit differing habitats and patterns of behaviour.

In his final years, Perutz turned to the study of changes in protein structures implicated in Huntington and other neurodegenerative diseases. He demonstrated that the onset of Huntington disease is related to the number of glutamine repeats as they bind to form what he called a polar zipper.

In his later years, he was a regular reviewer and essayist for the New York Review of Books, and he received the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science in 1997.

Perutz attacked the theories of philosophers Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn and of Richard Dawkins in a lecture given at Cambridge on ‘Living Molecules’ in 1994. He was strongly critical of scientists who attack religion, particularly Richard Dawkins. Statements that offend religious faith were for Perutz tactless and simply damage the reputation of science. He once said that ‘even if we do not believe in God, we should try to live as though we did.’

Within days of the 11 September attacks in 2001, Perutz wrote to Tony Blair, appealing to him not to respond with military force: ‘I am alarmed by the American cries for vengeance and concerned that President Bush’s retaliation will lead to the death of thousands more innocent people, driving us into a world of escalating terror and counter-terror. I do hope that you can use your restraining influence to prevent this happening.’

Perutz was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1954, was made CBE in 1963, and he received the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art in 1967 and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1971. He was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1975, and received the Copley Medal in 1979 and the Order of Merit in 1988.

Perutz became a Member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in 1964, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna (1965). He delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture in 1980 on ‘The Chicken, the Egg and the Molecules.’

Perutz married Gisela Clara Mathilde Peiser (1915-2005), a medical photographer, in 1942. She was born in Germany, and she too was a refugee from the Nazis because of her Jewish-born father. They were the parents of two children, Vivien (born 1944), an art historian; and Robin (born 1949), a professor of chemistry at the University of York.

Perutz died on 6 February 2002, was cremated at Cambridge Crematorium and his ashes are buried with his parents in the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge. Gisela died 2005 and her ashes are buried in the same grave.

As for his cousin, the writer and mathematician Leo Perutz, he formulated an algebraic equation that is named after him. He grew increasingly uncomfortable with the new state of Israel and treatment of Palestinians, and he returned regularly to Austria in 1950s, spending the summer and autumn months in the market town of St Wolfgang and in Vienna. He died in the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl in 1957.

Leo Perutz wrote his first novel, The Third Bullet, in 1915 while he was recovering from a wound in World War I. In all, he wrote 11 novels, that gained the admiration of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Ian Fleming, Karl Edward Wagner and Graham Greene, and he translated the novels of Victor Hugo into German. His literary style has been characterised ‘as the possible result of a little infidelity of Franz Kafka and Agatha Christie.’

The corner in the Eagle where James Watson and Francis Crick announced their discovery in 1953 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tales of the Viennese Jews:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

Lunchtime lecture series:
John Desmond Bernal,
Limerick scientist,
50th anniversary of death


Patrick Comerford

Lunchtime Lectures,

Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

1.15 p.m., Tuesday 18 May 2021


John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) … one of the most interesting and important Irish-born scientists of the last century

Part 1: Introducing JD Bernal

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), one of the most interesting and important Irish-born scientists of the 20th century. JD Bernal was born near Nenagh, Co Tipperary, 120 years ago on 10 May 1901, and he died 50 years ago on 15 September 1971. He had strong family roots in 19th century Limerick and many members of his immediate family are buried near the south porch of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

The Bernal family grave is in a quiet corner of the cathedral churchyard, facing the south porch and door, and many of us also know or are familiar with the Bernal Institute on the campus of the University of Limerick.

John Desmond Bernal, crystallographer, molecular physicist, social scientist, committed Communist, campaigner for world peace, and friend of Pablo Picasso, was born in Brookwatson, Nenagh, Co Tipperary, on 10 May 1901. He was the eldest child of Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919) and his wife, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Miller; they had married the previous year.

Samuel George Bernal’s father, JD Bernal’s grandfather, was John Bernal (1819-1898) of Albert Lodge, Laurel Hill, Limerick. Many people thought he was a member of the family of the prominent Victorian politician, Ralph Bernal Osborne (1808-1882), of Newtown Anner House, Co Tipperary, who was a Liberal MP for a number of English constituencies (1841-1868) before becoming MP for Waterford (1870-1874).

But, in fact, John Bernal was born Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese. His ancestors had been Sephardic Jews who lived in Venice from at least the mid-17th century, and before that they had lived in the Ancona area of southern Italy for many generations. The family moved through Amsterdam to London, and Jacob 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.

The Bernal family grave near the south porch of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Their son, Samuel George Bernal, was born in Limerick on 22 May 1864. At the age of 20, he ran away from Limerick to Australia in 1884, and there he 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, Co Tipperary.

Brookwatson near Nenagh, Co Tipperary, the childhood home of the scientist John Desmond Bernal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later that year, he bought the farm in Brookwatson on the Portumna road outside Nenagh, and built the present house. On a visit to continental Europe, 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 in Nenagh on 10 May 1910, died in London on 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 in age between the brothers John Desmond and Kevin Bernal, 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 Bernal was a devout Catholic throughout his school days.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where JD Bernal was an undergraduate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1910, Samuel Bernal decided to send his two eldest sons to Hodder Place and Stonyhurst in Lancashire, the leading Jesuit-run public school in England. At Stonyhurst, John would recall, 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 became Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and 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 made it possible to examine the 3-D chemical structure of the component species.

At Birkbeck, he founded the Biomolecular Research Laboratory in 1948, and it later became the internationally renowned Crystallography Department. As Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, London, and later as Professor of Crystallography, he presided over a centre of excellence that was celebrated worldwide.

Bernal would identify new fields to explore but then leave them to trusted colleagues. He wrote several books, published 224 scientific papers and almost 400 articles, lectured regularly on scientific and political topics 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 the US honoured him with the Medal of Freedom in 1945. Later, he was 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 Perutz, received Nobel prizes for pioneering work in protein crystallography for the first structural determination of vitamin B12 and haemoglobin, respectively. Max Perutz is known as ‘the godfather of molecular biology,’ and one of his students, Francis Crick, received the Nobel Prize for unravelling the structure of DNA with James Watson.

It is remarkable, therefore, that Bernal never received a Nobel Prize, although two or three of his students did. Conventional wisdom has 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 he was a campaigner for peace and demilitarisation in the years after World War II. Although he had supported the Allied war effort and was involved in planning the Normandy landings, he was often ostracised in the West, 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.

‘Bernal’s Picasso’ … when art and science met in an anti-war protest

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 in Torrington Square. The house was demolished later, but the mural survived and is now on display in London as part of the Wellcome Collection, and is known as ‘Bernal’s Picasso.’

Bernal became 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 was also the father of 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.

The Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His legacy was the development of crystallography as a central tool across the sciences.

The Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick is named after John Desmond Bernal, who remains one of the most influential and interesting Irish-born scientists of the 20th century.

The Genese/Bernal family tree … it is nine generations from Shmuel Genese (ca 1650-1703) of Venice to John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) (© Patrick Comerford 2021)

Part 2: Tracing the Bernal family

John Desmond Bernal’s grandfather, John Bernal (1819-1898), was a Limerick auctioneer and a city councillor. He was a member of the city council for over a quarter of a century as a councillor for the Dock Ward. He had auction rooms in George Street and later at 9 Thomas Street in Limerick. When he died on 17 September 1898, he was living at Albert Lodge in Laurel Hill.

As his funeral moved from his home at Laurel Hill to Saint Mary’s Cathedral along George Street (now O’Connell Street), all the city businesses remained shut as a mark of respect. The Mayor of Limerick, Michael Cusack (1834-1907), attended in full regalia, along with the mace and sword bearers and all the members of the City Council.

Canon James Fitzgerald Gregg (1820-1907), who officiated at the funeral, was later Dean of Limerick (1899-1905).

At least three generations of the Bernal family are buried with John Bernal in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, as well as his wife Catherine Maria Carroll, who had died over 17 years earlier in 1881. They had been married in Dublin in 1841, and they had a large family of 11 children – eight daughters and three sons.

The women’s balcony above the entrance to the synagogue in Córdoba … Abraham Nuñez Bernal was burned alive by the Spanish Inquisition in Córdoba in 1654 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In her biographical notice of Bernal, the Nobel chemist Dorothy Hodgkin provides considerable detail about the Bernal family, tracing the earliest records back to Spanish accounts of a family of Sephardic Jews. She begins with a Bernal who was an apothecary who travelled with Columbus on his third voyage to America in 1502.

Abraham Nuñez Bernal was burned alive in Cordoba by the Spanish Inquisition in 1654. His brother is supposed to have fled first to Holland and then to England.

A descendant of this family includes Ralph Bernal (1783-1854), a prominent Whig politician, and his son, also Ralph Bernal MP, who married a wealthy Irish heiress, Catherine Isabella Osborne (1819-1880), daughter of Sir Arthur Osborne, and became Ralph Bernal-Osborne (1808-1882). A Liberal MP, he lived at Newton Anner, near Clonmel, Co Tipperary, and they were the grandparents of Osborne Beauclerk, 12th Duke of St Albans.

These connections may have given the Bernal name a note of political and aristocratic distinction around Co Limerick and Co Tipperary, and they help to explain why JD Bernal and his family emphasised their descent from the Bernal family. But the original name of JD Bernal’s grandfather, John Bernal, was Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese.

The Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio leads into the Campo de Ghetto Nuovo in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although the Genese family is virtually forgotten in Limerick today, they are one of the many interesting Sepahrdi families on these islands. The family first came to London from the Jewish Ghetto in Venice in 1749, and for long have been members of Bevis Marks Synagogue, which opened in 1701, making it the oldest working synagogue on these islands.

The Genese family in Venice were silk merchants, upholsterers and house furnishers, and were living in the Ghetto Nuovo in Venice from the mid-1600s.

A family tradition once proposed that the Genese family were Sephardic refugees who fled to Italy from the Inquisition in Portugal and took their name from Genoa. However, it is now generally accepted by Jewish genealogists that the family had lived in the Italian peninsula for many centuries before they first appear in Venice in the 1640s.

It is now thought the name is derived from the town of San Ginesio, about 60 km south-west of Ancona, where there was a Jewish community with a continuous presence for 2,000 years.

The Scuola Italiana or Italian synagogue in the heart of the Ghetto in Venice … the Genese family were members of this synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Scuola Spagnola in Venice was founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The family were members of the Scuola Italiana in Venice, rather than the Spagnola Synagogue. This would indicate clearly that they were descended not from refugees from Spain or Portugal in the late 15th century or later but had Italkim (Italian-rite) origins.

Shemuel Ginesi (ca 1650-1703) and his wife, Benvenida (ca 1645-1707), lived in the Ghetto in Venice and were buried in the Jewish Cemetery in the Lido.

Their son, Emanuel or Mandolino Ginesi, was a community official in Venice in the first half of the 1700s. His son, David Genese, was living in the Ghetto Nuovo in Venice in September 1739.

David Genese was the father of Isaco or Isaac Genese (Gienese, Ginesi or Guinese), who arrived in London from Italy about 1749, perhaps having first moved to Amsterdam, where there was a large Sephardi community, descended from Spanish, Portuguese and Italian families.

Bevis Marks Synagogue … the only synagogue in Europe that has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This move to London coincides with a time when Italian Jewish families – including the D’Israelis, the Anconas and the Sanguinettis – were arriving in larger numbers and changing the make-up of the Bevis Marks Community. Until 1715, the members of the synagogue were almost wholly Spanish refugees or Amsterdam-Spanish migrants, and then from 1715 to 1739 overwhelmingly refugees from Portugal.

A year later, in 1750, Isaac Genese and Sarah de Isaac Lopez were married in the Spanish and Portuguese or Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.

Bevis Marks Synagogue is close to the heart of the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaac Genese and Sarah were the parents of six children:

1, a daughter who died in infancy in 1757.
2, Rachel Sarah who died unmarried in December 1817.
3, David Genese, who married his first cousin Benevenida de Abraham Mendoza, a sister of Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), the celebrated boxer of the Georgian era. David died in 1784, and has no known descendants.
4, Siporah, who married David de Moses Nabaro.
5, Samuel Genese (born 1767) who married Rebecca de Emmanuel Capua in 1790, and they were the parents of four children who died in childhood, two Rachels, Deborah and Isaac, and seven other children:

1a, Samson de Samuel Genese.
2a, Sarah, who married Joseph de Israel Benseraf.
3a, Emanuel Mordecai Genese, who married Sara de Joseph Tolano.
4a, Hanna, who married Isaac de Abraham Haim Garcia.
5a, Samson Genese, who married Abigail de Haim Daniel Dias.
6a, Rebecca.
7a, Esther.

6, Samson de Isaac Genese (born 1769), who married Esther de Abraham Bernal in 1791, a member of a well-known Sephardic family of Spanish descent.

The youngest son, Samson de Isaac Genese (born 1769), married Esther de Abraham Bernal, which is how the Bernal name was introduced to the family. Samson and Esther were the parents of seven children:

1, Isaac Haim Genese (1793-1858), who married Esther Jacobs and later moved to Ireland.
2, Rachel, who died young.
3, Abraham de Samson Genese, who died unmarried in 1859.
4, Samson Genese (junior), who married Hannah Simons. They have many living descendants.
5, Samuel Genese (1805-1888), who married Rachel Levy (1821-1871). They have many living descendants.
6, Simha.
7, David de Samson Genese (1807-1874), born 1807, and has many living descendants. His son, Joseph de David Genese (born 1851), had 11 children, the youngest born in 1886.

The eldest son, Isaac Haim Genese (1793-1858), married Esther Isaacs in London in 1817. They were the parents of five children, including:

1, Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese, later known as John Bernal (1819-1898).
2, Samuel William Genese (born 1816). In 1846, he took over running a snuff and tobacco shop at 34 Grafton Street, Dublin. He married Margaret Kelly in Saint Mary’s Church (Church of Ireland), Donnybrook, Dublin, in 1847 and they had at least four children, two sons Samson Genese and Robert and two daughters, including a daughter Hannah. The two daughters were still running the shop in Grafton Street in 1885. He moved to Liverpool ca 1851. His son:
● 1a, (Professor) Robert William Genese (1848-1928). He was born in Dublin, 8 May 1848, and baptised in Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, on 26 May 1848. He was educated at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (BA 1871, MA 1874), and was Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He married Margarette Richards in 1901, and he died at Southborough, Tunbridge Wells, on 21 January 1928.
3, Abraham (Bobby) Genese, who died in Limerick in 1847.
4, Rachel Genese (ca 1832-1902); her nephew Samuel Bernal was present at her death at Ormond Quay, Dublin, in 1902.

Isaac Genese was widowed when he moved from London to Ireland with his five surviving children around 1840. Louis Hyman, in his The Jews of Ireland, suggests he lived for a short time in Waterford, and other sources say he lived in Dublin. He set up an auctioneer’s business and ran bookshops and tobacconists in Eden Quay, Parliament Street and Grafton Street.

Sometime before 1848, Isaac Genese married his second wife in Dublin, and they had at least one further child (family stories suggest her mother’s name was Caroline Spencer):

1, Caroline Genese (1850-1901). She married Thomas Murtagh ( (son of Henry Murtagh) on 17 July 1871 in Saint Michael’s Church (Roman Catholic), and she was a widow when she died in Mercer’s Hospital Dublin in December 1901. They were the parents of at least three sons. Their sons included:
● 1a, Isaac Thomas Genese Murtagh (1872-1944), who married Emma Susannah Curedale (1880- ) on 27 May 1901 in Saint Peter’s Church, Aungier Street, Dublin. They were the parents of eight daughters and a son, and have many living descendants.

John Bernal ran his business from No 9 Thomas Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaac Genese’s eldest son, Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese (1819-1898), was born on 29 April 1819. He changed his name to John Bernal, and with his brother Abraham (Bobby) Genese he moved to Limerick in the 1840s. Here they set up a business as auctioneers in Thomas Street and lived in Sexton Street.

The Jewish Cemetery on Fairview Strand, Ballybough … Ireland’s oldest Jewish cemetery and one of the earliest Jewish burial grounds on these islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Bobby Genese died in 1847, he was first buried by his brother in a Christian cemetery. But the Jewish community was upset, his body was exhumed, and he was brought to Dublin for burial in the Jewish Cemetery in Ballybough.

Jacob Genese or John Bernal had joined the Church of Ireland, and he married Catherine Maria Carroll in Dublin in 1841. They lived at Albert Lodge on Laurel Hill Avenue, Limerick, and he became a successful auctioneer, businessman and active politician in Victorian Limerick as John Bernal.

Catherine Bernal, who raised their children as Roman Catholics, died in Limerick on 26 February 1881. Both Maria and John are buried here in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, in a raised area beside the south porch. They were the parents of 12 children, three sons and nine daughters.

1, Catharine (1845-post 1875), married Dr Jeremiah O’Donovan in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, on 24 February 1873.
2, Esther (1846-1875), died in Limerick, aged 29.
3, Dr Robert Arthur Bernal (1850-1876), of Albert Lodge, Laurel Hill Avenue, Limerick, and the Royal Navy. He married Catherine Elizabeth Donnelly (1856-1920) on 18 September 1875, in Saint Andrew’s Church, Dublin. He died 5 October 1876. They were the parents of a daughter, Catherine Elizabeth Mary Frances (Assherson), who was born in Dublin on 14 March 1877. The widowed Catherine (Donnelly) later married: (1) Charles Patrick Magee and (2) Eustatius Louis Emile Brand. She died in Cape Town in 1920.
4, John Theodore Bernal (1851- ).
5, Mary Gertrude (1851-1925), married William Patrick Ryan (1851- ) and they had a large family.
6, Grace (1855-1871), died at the age of 16.
7, Margaret Josephine (1856-1930) married Thomas John Ryan, later Thomas John Riggs-Miller, of Tyone House, Nenagh, at Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, in 1877.
8, Clara Elizabeth (born ca 1863), married Thomas Greenwood in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, in 1884.
9, Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919).
10, Aimee Rachel (1866-1937), born Albert Lodge, Limerick, 10 July 1866. She died 11 November 1937. She married Robert Ward in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, in 1889 and they had a large family.
11, Frances Esther, died on 17 March 1894, and buried at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.
12, Emily, married Albert Pfaff in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, in 1889; she died on 28 July 1912.

Albert Lodge later became part of the FCJ convent at Laurel Hill, Limerick, and was renamed Maryville

Albert Lodge was later sold by the Walker family and to the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ nuns) or Laurel Hill Nuns and became known as Maryville.

Meanwhile, the third son and seventh child in this family, Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919), who was born in Limerick on 22 May 1864, bought a farm in Brookwatson in 1898 and built the family house. On 9 January 1900, he married Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Miller (1869-1951), daughter of the Revd William Young Miller of Illinois, an Irish-born Presbyterian minister. She became a Roman Catholic before they married in 1900. Samuel Bernal died in Nenagh on 18 September 1919.

Samuel and Bessie Bernal 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), born Nenagh 22 January 1903, married Margaret Mary Sinnott (1913-1995) and died 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.

A family tree links JD Bernal with the boxer Daniel Mendoza, the two Sipple sisters who married two Comerford brothers, the actor Peter Sellers and many families linked with Bevis Marks Synagogue in London (© Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Part 3: A genealogical excursus

As we have seen, many people thought John Desmond Bernal was a member of the family of the prominent Victorian politician, Ralph Bernal Osborne (1808-1882), of Newtown Anner House, Co Tipperary, Liberal MP for a number of English constituencies (1841-1868) before becoming MP for Waterford (1870-1874).

In her biographical notice of JD Bernal, the Nobel chemist Dorothy Hodgkin said John Desmond Bernal was a direct descendant of a Spanish family of Sephardic Jews. She began with a Bernal who was an apothecary who travelled with Columbus on his third voyage to America in 1502.

Abraham Nuñez Bernal was burned alive in Cordoba by the Spanish Inquisition in 1654. His brother is supposed to have fled first to Holland and then to England.

A descendant of this family includes Ralph Bernal (1783-1854), a prominent Whig politician, and his son, also Ralph Bernal MP, who married a wealthy Irish heiress, Catherine Isabella Osborne (1819-1880), daughter of Sir Arthur Osborne, and became Ralph Bernal-Osborne (1808-1882). A Liberal MP, he lived at Newton Anner, near Clonmel, Co Tipperary, and they were the grandparents of Osborne Beauclerk, 12th Duke of St Albans.

These connections may have given the Bernal name a note of political and aristocratic distinction around Co Limerick and Co Tipperary, and they help to explain why JD Bernal and his family emphasised their descent from the Bernal family. But the original name of JD Bernal’s grandfather, John Bernal, was Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese.

I have been able to trace JD Bernal back in the direct male line in a genealogical tree that shows nine generations, from father to son, from Shmuel Genese, who was living in the Ghetto in Venice in the late 17th century, and I have shown how their synagogue membership in Venice shows the Genese family were of Italian Jewish (Italkim) origin, rather than a family of Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition in Italy.

We have to go back to Bernal’s great-great grandmother, Esther de Abraham Bernal, who married Samuel de Isaac Genese in the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.

The family in Limerick can be traced through parish records, mainly in Saint Michael’s Church, and through gravestones, including the family graves at the South Porch in Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

But tracing the family before it came to Ireland was more difficult. Louis Hyman, in the standard reference work, The Jews of Ireland (Shannon, 1972), says JD Bernal’s ancestors first settled in Waterford, rather than Limerick, and makes no connection with the Genese family, who had businesses in Limerick and Dublin.

So, how did I come across this fascinating family of ancient Jews, with a long lineage, and who moved from Ancona, to Venice, to Amsterdam, to London, to Dublin and to Limerick?

They are a family that marries into some of the most eminent Sephardic families of Europe, with names like Lopes, Mendoza, Isaacs, Castro, Tubi, Nunes Martinez, Crespo and Levy.

I have to admit, I came across the family almost by accident.

I was interested in two brothers, Henry William John Comerford (1874-1958) and Albert Alfred George Comerford (1879-1973), who had married two sisters, Rosina Sarah Sipple (1881-1958) and Agnes Violet Sipple (1884-1965).

I maintain a website on Comerford family history and genealogy and these two brothers, Harry and Bert, almost slipped under the radar. They were involved in stage, theatre, showbusiness and early movies at the beginning of the last century, but they used stage names, Harry Ford and Bert Brantford, which disguised their family origins.

Eventually, as I traced their families, I realised that Rosina and Agnes, the two sisters who married these two brothers, were Jewish by birth through their mothers. Although their grandparents were from the heart of the Jewish East End in 19th century London, they were descended from a long line of Sephardic families, associated for many generations with the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, one of the oldest continuously operating Sephardi synagogues in Europe.

Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Western Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At some stage in tracing this branch of the family through the East End, Amsterdam and Seville, I also came across the story of Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), once one of the best-known and most celebrated boxers in sporting history on these islands.

One hunch led to another, as is so often the case in genealogical research, and within weeks of visiting the Jewish quarter in Seville, I ended up tracing a very long-tailed family with links to Jewish communities throughout Europe.

To summarise the connections: the brothers Harry and Bert Comerford married two sisters, Rosina and Agnes Sipple, who were fourth cousins of Samuel George Bernal of Limerick, father of John Desmond Bernal, and fourth cousins too of Peg Marks (1892-1962), the mother of the actor Peter Sellers (1925-1980).

Another view of the Bernal grave in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Part 4: Some recommendations:

So, apart from sharing an interesting story this afternoon, what conclusions or observations have I offer?

1, This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), one of the most distinguished Irish-born scientists, who has deep family roots in Limerick, where his father Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919) was born, and where his grandfather was a member of the city council. I hope his lunchtime talk is just one appropriate way to commemorate this fiftieth anniversary this year.

2, The story of the Genese family, with their Jewish roots, and their subsequent membership of the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church in Limerick, offers an interesting insight into the religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds of people in Limerick that we need to celebrate more consciously in a time when the place of immigrants is questioned and when definitions of Irish identity are in danger of becoming more narrow.

3, Genealogists should never trust what is too easily regarded as ‘accepted wisdom.’ We must always question what is handed on as family story, look for evidence, trust only primary sources, and be willing to look for what other people may hide or forget. The results are rewarding because, in the long run, we find we have the most interesting family connections that make us part of diversity and pluralism not only in Ireland, but throughout Europe.

4, For too long, telling the story of Limerick’s Jewish community has been overshadowed by what has been called the ‘Limerick Pogrom.’ It is a story that must not be forgotten, but it is not the only, or over-arching story in the history of Limerick Jews. JD Bernal’s ancestors are an example of the variety of Jewish life in this city.

Another example includes Henry Jaffé, who left Limerick in 1904 and was the grandfather of the journalist and popular historian Simon Sebag Montefiore and his brother, the writer and historian Hugh Sebag Montefiore. But their great-great-grandparents, Benjamin and Rachel Jaffe remained in Limerick and were living in Catherine Street in 1911, along with their great-grandparents, Marcus and Leah Jaffe, who also lived on Catherine Street.

Or there is Limerick’s last resident rabbi, Simon Gewurtz (1887-1944) from Bratislava, who links the story of Limerick’s Jews with the stories of the Holocaust.

Like other cities in Europe, from Seville, Cordoba and Porto to Cork, London, Prague, Bratislava and Krakow, I believe Limerick would be enriched by having a Jewish walking trail … and the story of the Bernal family would be an important part of that route.

Brookwatson, near Nenagh, the childhood home of JD Bernal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and priest-in-charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This lecture was part of a series of five online lunchtime talks in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, marking anniversaries in 2021.



This paper was updated on 1 June 2021, with further details on the Murtagh family

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
91, Swanwick Conference Centre, Derbyshire

The chapel in the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week, we are in an ‘in-between week’, between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost. My photographs this week are from places I associate with the life of USPG. Earlier in this series, I introduced the Chapel in the USPG offices in Southwark and its stained glass windows (20 March 2021).

This morning (18 May 2021), my photographs are from the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, which was the planned venue for last year’s USPG conference until the Covid-19 conference forced its cancellation. This year’s conference is planned for the High Leigh conference centre in Hertfordshire (20 to 22 July 2021), and I still have hopes that the roll-out of the vaccine and the easing of travel restrictions may mean I can take part in the conference this year, the last year in my six-year term as a trustee of USPG.

I have also taken part in many USPG conferences in Swanwick in the past (2008, 2010, 2016), sometimes leading workshops and taking part in council and trustee meetings. Archbishop Alan Harper of Armagh was the keynote speaker on the final day of the conference in 2008.

I first attended a peace conference in Swanwick in 1976, when I first met people like Bruce Kent of CND and Harry Mister of Housman’s Bookshop, and I have been back on many occasions since. These visits have often afforded opportunities to take a few extra days off in Lichfield.

Swanwick is near Alfreton, and less than two miles from Ripley, the Derbyshire town that was named by the Guardian in 2016 as the ‘most English town’ in England.

The old country house, Swanwick Hayes – now the Hayes Conference Centre – was built by the Derbyshire industrialist, Francis Wright, in 1860s as a wedding present for his son, FitzHerbert Wright (1841-1910), when he married Charlotte Rudolphine Louise von Beckman (1848-1932), the daughter of a German pastor, in 1865.

Fitzherbert Wright’s father was a leading Derbyshire industrialist, while his mother, Selina FitzHerbert, was a daughter of Sir Henry FitzHerbert (1783-1858) of Tissington Hall, an early 17th-century Jacobean mansion near Ashbourne. The FitzHerberts acquired Tissington by marriage in 1465. The old moated manor at Tissington was replaced with the new mansion in 1609 by Francis FitzHerbert, and it remains the home of the FitzHerbert family. Today, it is the home of Sir Richard Ranulph FitzHerbert. These connections are recalled in the name of the Tissington Room on the ground floor of Lakeside, where I stayed on my most recent visit.

FitzHerbert Wright had interests in local ironworks and coalmines, and was a county councillor and JP. When he was retiring from the Butterley Company as managing director in 1903, he paid for a new tower as a gift for the Parish Church of Saint Andrew, which was built at the crossroads in Swanwick in 1860.

FitzHerbert Wright died on 19 December 1910, and in 1911 the family sold the house for £11,500, about a fifth of its original building cost, to the First Conference Estate Ltd. It was converted into the Christian conference centre that operates to this day.

During World War II, the Hayes was used as a prisoner of war camp for German and Italian prisoners. Franz von Werra, a Luftwaffe officer, escaped from here, but was recaptured at nearby RAF Hucknall as he tried to steal an aircraft. He later made the only verified German escape, from Canada.

Today, the Hayes is one of the largest conference centres of its type. But past stories are cherished with names on rooms such as Butterley, Tissington, Haddon, Chatsworth and Alan Booth. Perhaps I shall return to Swanwick soon.

The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick … the original house was built in 1865 by the FitzHerbert Wright family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 17: 1-11 (NRSVA)

1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

6 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’

Swanwick Hayes was built in 1860s as a wedding present for FitzHerbert Wright (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (18 May 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for the work of theological colleges across the world church. May the work of these institutions help us to better understand God and the path He intends for us.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Night settles on the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint Andrew’s Parish Church on The Green in Swanwick, Derbyshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)