|Sir John Cornforth|
7 September 1917 |
|Residence||Brighton, United Kingdom|
|Institutions||University of Oxford,
University of Sussex
|Alma mater||University of Sydney,
St Catherine's College, Oxford
|Doctoral advisor||Robert Robinson|
|Known for||Stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions|
|Notable awards||Corday–Morgan Medal (1949)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1975)
Royal Medal (1976)
Copley Medal (1982)
Sir John Warcup "Kappa" Cornforth, Jr., AC, CBE, FRS, FAA (born 7 September 1917 in Sydney, Australia), is an Australian–British chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975 for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions.
Cornforth investigated enzymes that catalyse changes in organic compounds, the substrates, by taking the place of hydrogen atoms in a substrate's chains and rings. In his syntheses and descriptions of the structure of various terpenes, olefins, and steroids, Cornforth determined specifically which cluster of hydrogen atoms in a substrate were replaced by an enzyme to effect a given change in the substrate, allowing him to detail the biosynthesis of cholesterol. For such work, he won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975, alongside co-recipient Vladimir Prelog, and was knighted in 1977.
Born in Sydney, New South Wales, Cornforth was the son and the second of four children of English-born, Oxford-educated schoolmaster and teacher John Warcup Cornforth and Hilda Eipper (1887–1969), a granddaughter of pioneering missionary and Presbyterian minister Christopher Eipper. Before her marriage, Eipper had been a maternity nurse.
At about 10 years old, Cornforth had noted signs of deafness, which led to a diagnosis of otosclerosis, a disease of the inner ear which causes progressive hearing loss. This would leave him completely deaf by the age of 20 but also fatefully influence his career direction towards chemistry.
Cornforth was educated at Sydney Boys High School, whereat he academically excelled, having passed in English, mathematics, science, French, Greek, and Latin, and was inspired by his chemistry teacher, Leonard ("Len") Basser, to change his career directions from the law to chemistry. After graduating from High at the age of 16, Cornforth attended the University of Sydney, where his hearing became progressively worse, thus making listening to lectures difficult. At the time, he could not use hearing aids as the sound became distorted, and he did not significantly use lip reading.
Having studied organic chemistry while at the University of Sydney's School of Chemistry, Cornforth graduated with First-Class Honours and the University Medal in 1937. Also there, he met his future wife, fellow chemist, and scientific collaborator, Rita Harradence, herself a graduate of St George Girls High School and a distinguished academic achiever, graduating with a Bachelor of Science with First-Class Honours and the University Medal in Organic Chemistry in 1936. Harradence also graduated with a M.Sc. in 1937.
In 1939, Cornforth and Harradence, independently of each other, each won one of two Science Research Scholarships (the 1851 Research Fellowship) from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, tenable overseas for two years, to work at the University of Oxford with Sir Robert Robinson, with whom they would collaborate for 14 years. In 1941, Cornforth and Harradence were each awarded a D.Phil.
After his arrival at Oxford and during World War II, Cornforth significantly influenced the work on penicillin, particularly in purifying and concentrating it. Penicillin is usually very unstable in its crude form; as a consequence of this, researchers at the time were building upon Howard Florey's work on the drug. In 1940, Cornforth and other chemists measured the yield of penicillin in arbitrary units to understand the conditions that favoured penicillin production and activity, and he contributed to the authoring of The Chemistry of Penicillin.
During his time at Oxford, Cornforth found working for, and with, Robert Robinson stimulating, and the pair would deliberate to no end until one had a cogent case against the other's counterargument.
In 1946, Cornforth and his wife, Rita, left Oxford and joined the Medical Research Council, working at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), where they continued on earlier work in synthesising sterols, including cholesterol. The Cornforths collaboration with Robinson continued and flourished. In 1951, they completed, simultaneously with Woodward, the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids. At the NIMR, Cornforth collaborated with numerous biological scientists, including George Popják, with whom he shared an interest in cholesterol. Together, they received the Davy Medal in 1968 in recognition of their distinguished joint work on the elucidation of the biosynthetic pathway to polyisoprenoids and steroids.
In 1975, Cornforth was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, alongside Vladimir Prelog. Also in 1975, he had moved to Sussex University as a Royal Society Research Professor.
In 1941, the year in which they graduated from the University of Oxford, Cornforth married Rita H. Harradence, with whom he would have three children. Cornforth met Harradence after she had broken a Claisen flask in their second year at the University; Cornforth, with his expertise of glassblowing and the use of a blowpipe, mended the break.
Both John and Rita Cornforth were good friends with fellow Australian, University of Sydney classmate (though John was in the year after Rita and Birch; Rita and Birch were contemporaries), and University of Oxford colleague of Arthur John Birch, who was known for contributions including the Birch reduction.
Honours and awards
Cornforth's other awards and recognitions thus follow:
- Corday–Morgan Medal (1953)
- Davy Medal (1968)
- Fellow of the Royal Society
- Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1975)
- Royal Medal (1976)
- Order of the British Empire (1977)
- Corresponding Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1977)
- Foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (since 1978)
- Copley Medal (1982)
- John Cornforth, NNDB
- Encyclopædia Britannica. (2012.) "Sir John Cornforth".
- Deaf Scientist Corner - John Warcup Cornforth, Texas Woman's University
- John Cornforth, Royal Institution of Australia
- Sir John Cornforth - Chemistry, The University of Sydney
- John Cornforth - Autobiography, NobelPrize.org
- Jim Eckert writes about the Cornforths, The University of Sydney
- John Cornforth, biotechnology-innovation.com.au
- Sperans. (1932.) "Bright students: intermediate stage", The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January.
- Doherty P. C. (2006.) The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize: A Life in Science, Columbia University Press, p. 89.
- Patrons, Sydney High School Old Boys Union
- Cribb J. (2006.) Master of the molecules, Cosmos, 6 September.
- Nobel Laureates - Chemistry, The University of Sydney
- Lady Rita Cornforth, St George Girls High School
- History - Chemistry - The Cornforths, The University of Sydney
- The Sydney Morning Herald. (1931.) "St. George Girls' High School", The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December.
- The Sydney Morning Herald. (1933.) Bursaries: tenable at university, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February.
- The Sydney Morning Herald. (1939.) Scientific research, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July.
- White, J.W. (5 February 1996). "Research School of Chemistry, ANU - Rita Cornforth Fellowships".
- "Award History". 1851 Alumni of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.
- Clarke H. T., Johnson J. R., Robinson R (eds.). (1949.) The Chemistry of Penicillin, Princeton University Press, NJ.
- Hargittai I. and Hargittai M. (2000.) Candid Science: Conversations with Famous Chemists, Imperial College Press, London, United Kingdom. ISBN 1860942288.
- (1999.) In Memoriam: Professor George Joseph Popják, MD, DSc, FRS, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 19:830–831.
- Sir John Cornforth : About the School : School of Life Sciences : University of Sussex
- Sir John Warcup Cornforth - About Us, The University of Sydney
- Notable Old Girls - History of St George Girls High School - Our School
- "Kappa interviewed by Bob Thomas". The Vega Science Trust.
- Australian Academy of Science - Biographical Memoirs: Arthur Birch
- Australian of the Year Awards - John Cornforth, Australian of the Year
- Lewis, Wendy (2010). Australians of the Year. Pier 9 Press. ISBN 978-1-74196-809-5.
- Face To Face Interview With John Cornfoth by The Vega Science Trust (audio)
- How to be right and wrong with John Cornforth by The Vega Science Trust