John Desmond Bernal
4 of 6 portraits of John Desmond Bernal
John Desmond Bernal
by Wolfgang Suschitzky
gelatin silver print, 14 April 1949
11 5/8 in. x 9 3/4 in. (295 mm x 248 mm)
Artistback to top
- Wolfgang Suschitzky (1912-2016), Photographer and cinematographer; brother of Edith Tudor-Hart. Artist of 77 portraits.
This portraitback to top
A scientific polymath, Bernal was Professor of Physics (1938-63) and the first Professor of Crystallography (1963-8) at Birkbeck College, London University. His research included work on the tobacco mosaic virus, sex hormones, the structure and property of water and the chemical processes involved in the origin of matter. His publications include The Social Functions of Science (1939) and Science in History (1954). Bernal served during the Second World War as an adviser to Home Security, Bomber Command and Combined Operations, and was photographed by Suschitzky in 1949 at his microscope.
Linked publicationsback to top
- Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 253 Read entry
From his days as an undergraduate the physicist Desmond Bernal was nicknamed 'Sage', and he was a polymath, with an infectious delight in new ideas. Before the war he played a major role in the development of crystallography, and was one of the founders of molecular biology, working on the structures of sex hormones, water, proteins (with Dorothy Hodgkin), and viruses. During the war he worked as adviser to Lord Mountbatten at Combined Operations, on the development of artificial icebergs as aircraft carriers, and on the scientific planning for the invasion of Europe. Afterwards, as professor at Birkbeck College, London, he had a vision of his laboratory as an 'Institute for the Study of Things', but it never fully materialized. Bernal's extreme left-wing views made him unpopular in the climate of the cold war, and he was largely deprived of the necessary funds for his research. A frequent visitor to the Soviet Union, he was a friend of Khruschev, and, most controversially, a supporter of the agriculturist Lysenko. He was awarded the Lenin Prize for peace in 1953.
Wolf Suschitzky was born in Vienna, where his father had opened the first Socialist bookshop in 1900, and studied at the Austrian State School for Photography. Like many of his contemporaries, he was deeply influenced by the Foto-Auge exhibition of 1929. He came to London in the 1930s, where he produced a series of documentary photographs of the West End, and worked as a photo-journalist. From the late 1930s onwards he has worked as a film cameraman on documentary and feature films, and, increasingly, commercials. Shortly after the war he was a founder member of DATA, the first film co-operative. He photographed Bernal at his microscope in his laboratory at Birkbeck College, in the cold war years when he was fighting against diminishing resources and for world peace.
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 53
Subjects & Themesback to top
Events of 1949back to top
Current affairsFollowing the Republic of Ireland Act in 1948, the Irish Free State becomes the Republic of Ireland and leaves the Commonwealth. The functions previously given to the King were handed to the President of Ireland.
The Second Parliament Act diminishes the power of the House of Lords, reducing their authority to delay bills from two years to one.
Art and scienceGeorge Orwell publishes his dystopian novel, 1984. The book imagines a future where totalitarian governments rule; their power based on continual war abroad, and overwhelming propaganda and surveillance at home. With 'Big Brother' keeping a constant check on the citizens' actions and thoughts, the individual loses the faculties of free will and independent thought.
InternationalThe People's Republic of China is created after the Communist Party wins the Civil War. China became a communist country under Mao Zedong.
Cold War tensions increase as Germany is split into the democratic Federal Republic of Germany in the west (a union of the post-war British, French and American sectors), and the communist German Democratic Republic, in the east.