Birkbeck College, University of London

(Last updated May 2003)

The department of crystallography has a short but distinguished history, going back to the foundation of the laboratory just after WW II by John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971). Other famous scientists who have worked here include the Nobel laureates Derek Barton and Aaron Klug, as well as the fellows of the Royal Society Tom Blundell and Alan Mackay, and Rosalind Franklin, whose crystallographic images of DNA helped Watson and Crick in their discovery of the double helix.

Bernal came to Birkbeck in 1937 as a professor of physics. On returning to Birkbeck in 1946 after wartime activities, he focused on crystallography and set up a new laboratory for this purpose in 21 and 22 Torrington Square. The lab was officially opened on July 1, 1948, and its research activities were as broad-ranged as today, including materials science and molecular biology.

Teaching activities began with an M.Sc. course in crystallography, which was taught for nearly half a century. Today, courses taught via the internet reach students around the globe.

From 1954 to 1961, Aaron Klug worked on virus structures at Birkbeck, with Rosalind Franklin who moved here from Kings College just after the discovery of the double helix, which was made possible by her experimental data.

After difficult times, the department made a successful leap into big science under the leadership of Tom Blundell, who took over in 1977. Blundell left in 1995 to become the founding chief executive of the newly established Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The department is now a first class centre for research in structural biology and materials science, while keeping up its commitment to broad access higher education. It has around 120 full time staff members and enrols full-time and part-time graduate students on Ph.D. and Master's courses every year.


  • AL Mackay, The chemical intelligencer 1995, 12-18.
  • M Goldsmith: Sage, A Life of JD Bernal, Hutchinson, London, 1980.
  • B Maddox: Rosalind Franklin, HarperCollins 2002

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