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JD Bernal and the DNA double helix

The Sage of Science, biography of JD Bernal by Andrew Brown

The Sage of Science, biography of JD Bernal by Andrew Brown

Watson and Crick would never have discovered the DNA double helix in 1953, if it hadn’t been for an ingenious Irish scientist, who was born on this day 1901.  That scientist was the great JD Bernal, who pioneered the study of the structure of proteins and other complex molecules, and is regarded by many as the father of modern biomolecular studies.

Jim Watson, in Dublin recently to mark the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix, acknowledged his debt to Bernal in a talk at the Royal Irish Academy:

“I think it is true that without the Irish connection I wouldn’t be here.
When you think about it some discoveries are inevitable… The three-dimensional structure of DNA was going to be found sometime between 1952 and 1955, it couldn’t have gone on any longer.

“But J.D. Bernal might not have ever existed! And I’m not sure that anyone else would have ever found all the space groups, and taken pictures of proteins.  So one could imagine protein crystallography not starting for another 20 years, 30 years.  So that was not at all inevitable, it was sort of accidental.”

Brilliant Bernal

Bernal was a brilliant, colourful and controversial man, and one of Ireland’s greatest and most fascinating scientists — definitely worth reading about.

He was born on this day May 10 in 1901, in Co Tipperary.

Hear: James Watson’s 2013 talk at the Royal Irish Academy; his opening remarks about his debt to Bernal  start at the 5 minute mark.

Read:  Bernal biography in Wikipedia. Andrew Brown short biography from the Institute of Physics. Full biography by Andrew Brown: The Sage of Science, Oxford University press 2007


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