Tuesday, 10 June 2008

J.D. Bernal and Crystallography's Beginnings

Last week at Birkbeck we held the annual lecture celebrating the life and work of J.D. Bernal, the founder and first head of the School of Crystallography at Birkbeck. Bernal - "Sage" as many of his contemporaries knew him - was one of the most influential figures in the early development of structural biology. In 1934, while at Cambridge University, he and his student Dorothy Crowfoot obtained the first X-ray diffraction pattern from a protein. That protein was pepsin; its structure was only solved many decades later. (The link is to a structure of porcine pepsin by a group led by another head of Birkbeck Crystallography, Professor Tom Blundell.)

Dorothy Crowfoot - as Dorothy Hodgkin - went on to win the 1964 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for her work on the structures of vitamin B12 and penicillin. She also solved the structure of insulin. Bernal's mind was no less brilliant than his student's, but the ultimate prize still eluded him. Most commentators agree that he is one of the greatest scientists never to win the Nobel, although several of those he worked alongside and inspired, including Francis Crick, Aaron Klug and Max Perutz, did so.

It is possible that Bernal simply never allowed himself to stay focused on any one area for long enough to win the Nobel. This was essentially the view of Sir Lawrence Bragg, himself a Nobel Laureate (Physics, 1915): "if one traces back almost any fruitful line of crystallographic work, it will be found that Bernal assisted at its conception but left the child to be brought up by foster-parents. This is particularly so in the case of molecular biology and in the analysis of protein crystals. Immediately on seeing the first x-ray differentiation pictures from protein crystals...he assumed that protein structures would sooner or later be solved, and handed out problems to his students and to anyone whom he could persuade to take them up."

Bernal's politics may also have disenchanted him from the Establishment. He was a life-long and well-known Communist (in an era when this was far more common among intellectuals than it is today) and an internationalist, and visited the Soviet Union many times. The painter Picasso was among the giants of the European Left who knew him well; one meeting between the two, after which Picasso left behind a mural on the wall of Bernal's flat in the college, has even been made into a play. (The Wellcome Trust now own the mural, and have recently installed it in their London headquarters.) He was also a pacifist, and chaired the World Peace Council from 1959-1965.

Bernal's contributions to scientific thought go far beyond the practice of what is known as "hard science". He gave much attention to the interaction between science and society, and how science should be managed and funded. One of his many books, The Social Function of Science, published in 1939, is considered the earliest text on the sociology of science. And this year's Bernal Lecture focused on an earlier book still: The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929): subtitled An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul .

There is not enough space in a blog post to do justice to this fascinating man. Those of you who would like to know more about him are referred to a biographical memoir written in 1980 by Dorothy Hodgkin and available online.

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