Tipperary Born J.D. Bernal Most Important Irish Scientist Of Last Century.

“Science should and does serve society” – Quote John Desmond Bernal.

John Desmond Bernal, (1901-I971), one of the most important Irish-born scientists of the last century, was born at Brookwatson, Nenagh, here in North Co. Tipperary.

John’s father was Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919) latter a moderately prosperous Tipperary dairy farmer who had, at the age of 20, run away to Australia from his native home, then in Co. Limerick before returning home following his father’s death.

John’s mother was the American journalist Elizabeth (Bessie) Bernal (nee Miller) (1869-1951 ), the daughter of a Co. Antrim born Presbyterian minister Revd. William Young Miller, then living in Illinois, a state in the Midwestern United States of America.

Both parents had met while on a visit to a seaside resort in Belgium. Bessie is described as being tall, beautiful, energetic, well educated (one of the first students to attend at Stanford University, one of the world’s leading research and teaching institutions), and a much-travelled woman who spoke fluent French. They became engaged within one month of meeting and for convenience, would convert to Roman Catholicism, prior to their marriage on Tuesday, January 9th, 1900.

John was born on Friday, May 10th, 1901, the eldest of 3 brothers and two sisters, who attending first the local Convent school, and later the Church of Ireland national school at Barrack Street, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary.
In 1910, their parents decided to send their two eldest sons, John and Kevin, to a Jesuit-run public school in Lancashire, England.

John won a scholarship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1919 to eventually read physics and it was here that John developed a strong interest in the developing the science of X-ray crystallography. It was here also that he became an active Marxist, becoming a committed Communist for the rest of his life.

Committed to non-possessive sexual liberation; John married his wife Eileen two days after his graduation, before later maintaining three households with his wife, and two other women, Margot Heinemann and Margaret Gardiner and their four children. In this respect the 4 women knew each other and got on well together.
Bernal had two children (Mike, 1926–2016 and Egan, b.1930), with his wife Agnes Eileen Sprague, a secretary, and referred to as Eileen. They had married on Wednesday, June 21st, 1922, the day after John had been awarded his BA degree. Eileen is also mentioned as his widow in 1990.
In the early 1930’s, he had a brief intimate relationship with chemist Dorothy Hodgkin.
He had a long-term relationship with the artists’ patron Margaret Gardiner. Their son Martin Bernal (1937–2013) was a professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University and the author of the controversial Afrocentric work “Black Athena”. * Margaret referred to herself as “Mrs. Bernal”, though she and John never married.
He also had a daughter Jane, born in 1953, with Margot Heinemann, latter British Marxist writer, drama scholar and leading member of the British Communist Party.

* Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, in three volumes were published in 1987, 1991, and 2006. Same is a controversial and pseudo-historic book published by Martin Bernal, proposing an alternative hypothesis on the origins of ancient Greece and classical civilisation.

John’s encyclopaedic knowledge soon earned him the nickname “Sage”, while at Cambridge University and in 1927, he became the first lecturer in ‘Structural Crystallography’ * and was appointed assistant director of the Cavendish Laboratory at the same University in 1934.
In 1937, John became Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, a public research university, located in Bloomsbury London, as head of their newly established department of crystallography.

*Crystallography is the experimental science of determining the arrangement of atoms in crystalline solids.

His range of friends included Kruschev, Chairman Mao, Lord Mountbatten, Artists Barbara Hepworth and Pablo Picasso.
Indeed, it was following a cancelled Soviet-sponsored World Peace Congress in Sheffield, that Picasso and other peace activist friends returned to Bernal’s flat at the top of No. 22 Torrington Square, London for a party. It was here also that Picasso created his only mural drawn in Britain, executed on Bernal’s wall. In 2007, it became part of the Wellcome Trust’s collection for £250,000. [The 7ft by 4ft ‘Bernal Picasso’ remains on show in the Birkbeck Clore Management Centre, 27 Torrington Square, London, United Kingdom]

Prior to the outbreak of World War II in 1939; with the likelihood of war against Hitler’s Germany; Bernal, together with Solomon “Solly” Zuckerman, (latter British public servant, zoologist, medic and operational research pioneer, later remembered as a scientific advisor to the Allies on bombing strategy in World War II), felt compelled to voice their protest at the lack of preparation for mounting any form of response against an initial attack and together were effective in challenging the official lines of the then British establishment.

In line with later US President Lyndon Johnson’s infamous remark “What’s the difference between a cactus and a caucus? The cactus has all the pricks on the outside”; in April 1942 a member of Chamberlain’s cabinet, Sir John Anderson, invited Bernal to become his scientific advisor.
The post was accepted by Bernal who suspended his academic activities, before becoming Scientific Adviser to Combined Operations, under Lord Louis Mountbatten,* in spite of his then MI5 dossier. Indeed, prior to Sir John Anderson’s initial invitation; the latter is quoted as saying “even if he is as red as the flames in hell, I want him”.

* Mountbatten would later be assassinated by a bomb planted aboard his fishing boat in Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo, Ireland; by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, on Monday, August 27th, 1979.

John Bernal would devise plans that contributed to the success of the D-Day landings, including co-inventing the “Mulberry temporary portable floating harbour”,* used during the Normandy Invasion (June 6th,1944), to facilitate the rapid offloading of supplies and personnel along the coast of Normandy, France.
He established the physical condition of the beach the allies would land on and instigated aerial photography to create accurate models of the French coastline.

*Mulberry was the codename for all the various different structures that would create the artificial harbours. These were the “Gooseberries” which metamorphosed into fully fledged harbours, allowed the unloading of, in total, over 2.5 million troops, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of wartime supplies.

Following the war he returned to his Chair of Physics at Birkbeck College and in 1946 receive the Council of the Royal Societies award of a Royal Medal for that year, for his work on the structure of proteins and other substances by X-ray methods.


Bernal was awarded the Royal Medal in 1945; the Guthrie lecture in 1947; the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953; the Grotius Gold Medal in 1959 and the Bakerian Lecture in 1962.

In his later years, John Bernal took on the role of a senior statesman of science, travelling the world spreading scientific and social ideas, as a prominent intellectual in political life.
Following a number of strokes; his first on an aircraft as he returned from one of his many trips abroad; he passed away on Wednesday, September 15th, 1971.

Today, the John Desmond Bernal Prize is an award given annually by the Society for Social Studies of Science to scholars, judged to have made a distinguished contribution to the field of Science and Technology Studies; first launched in 1981.


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