John Cornforth

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Sir John Cornforth
John Cornforth 1975.jpg
Cornforth in 1975
Born John Warcup Cornforth Jr.
(1917-09-07)7 September 1917
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Died 8 December 2013(2013-12-08) (aged 96)
Sussex, England, United Kingdom
Residence Brighton, United Kingdom
Nationality Australian
Citizenship Australian,
British
Alma mater
Known for Stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions
Spouse(s) Rita Harradence
Awards
Scientific career
Fields Organic chemistry
Institutions
Thesis Synthesis of analogues of steroid hormones (1941)
Doctoral advisor Robert Robinson

Sir John Warcup Cornforth Jr.,[3] AC, CBE, FRS, FAA (7 September 1917 – 8 December 2013) was an Australian–British chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975 for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions,[4][5] becoming the only Nobel laureate born in New South Wales.[2][6][7]

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.[8] For this work, he won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975, alongside co-recipient Vladimir Prelog, and was knighted in 1977.[9]

Early life and family[edit]

Born in Sydney, 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.[3][10]

Cornforth was raised in Sydney as well as Armidale, in the north of New South Wales,[11] where he undertook primary school education.[10]

At about 10 years old,[12] Cornforth had noted signs of deafness, which led to a diagnosis of otosclerosis, a disease of the middle 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.[13]

Education[edit]

Cornforth was educated at Sydney Boys' High School, where he excelled academically, passed tests in English, mathematics, science, French, Greek, and Latin,[14] and was inspired by his chemistry teacher, Leonard ("Len") Basser,[15][16] to change his career directions from law to chemistry.[12][17] Cornforth graduated as the dux of the class of 1933 at Sydney Boys' High School, at the age of 16.[18]

In 1934, Cornforth matriculated and studied at the University of Sydney,[18][19] where he studied organic chemistry at the University of Sydney's School of Chemistry and from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Science with First-Class Honours and the University Medal in 1937.[9][20] During his studies, his hearing became progressively worse, thus making listening to lectures difficult.[citation needed] At the time, he could not use hearing aids as the sound became distorted, and he did not significantly use lip reading.[citation needed]

While studying at the University of Sydney, Cornforth met his future wife, fellow chemist and scientific collaborator, Rita Harradence.[21][22] Harradence was a graduate of St George Girls High School[21][22] and a distinguished academic achiever[10][23][24] who had topped the state in Chemistry in the New South Wales Leaving Certificate Examination.[25] Harradence graduated with a Bachelor of Science with First-Class Honours and the University Medal in Organic Chemistry in 1936, a year ahead of Cornforth.[26] Harradence also graduated with a MSc in 1937,[27] writing a master's thesis titled "Attempts to synthesise the pyridine analogue of vitamin B1".[28]

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,[29] tenable overseas for two years.[26] At the University of Oxford, they were members of St. Catherine's College[30] and worked with Sir Robert Robinson, with whom they would collaborate for 14 years.[10] During his time at Oxford, Cornforth found working for and with Robinson stimulating, and the two would often deliberate to no end until one had a cogent case against the other's counterargument.[31] In 1941, Cornforth and Harradence both graduated with a D.Phil. in Organic Chemistry.[32][33] At the time, there were no institutions or facilities at which a PhD in chemistry could be done in Australia.[34]

Career[edit]

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 writing of The Chemistry of Penicillin.[35]

In 1946, the Cornforths, who had by now married, left Oxford and joined the Medical Research Council (MRC), 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 Robert Burns Woodward[citation needed], the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids. At the NIMR, Cornforth collaborated with numerous biological scientists, including George Popják,[36] 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.

While working at the MRC, Cornforth was appointed a Professor at the University of Warwick and was employed there from 1965 to 1971.[37]

In 1975, Cornforth was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, alongside Vladimir Prelog. In his acceptance speech, Cornforth said:

Throughout my scientific career my wife has been my most constant collaborator. Her experimental skill made major contributions to the work; she has eased for me beyond measure the difficulties of communication that accompany deafness; her encouragement and fortitude have been my strongest support.[38]

Also in 1975, he moved to the University of Sussex in Brighton as a Royal Society Research Professor.[11][39] Cornforth remained there as a professor and was active in research until his death.[40][41]

Personal life[edit]

In 1941, the year in which they graduated from the University of Oxford, Cornforth married Rita Harriet Harradence (b. 1915),[5][21][42] with whom he would have one son, John, and two daughters, Brenda and Philippa.[3][43] Cornforth had met Harradence after she had broken a Claisen flask in their second year at the University of Sydney; Cornforth, with his expertise of glassblowing and the use of a blowpipe, mended the break.[44] Rita Cornforth died on 6 November 2012,[45] at home with her family around her,[46] following a long illness.[47]

On an important author or paper that was integral to his success, Cornforth stated that he was particularly impressed by the works of German chemist Hermann Emil Fischer.[44]

Cornforth died in Sussex on 8 December 2013.[43][48][49][50] at the age of 96.[51] Cornforth is survived by his three children and four grandchildren.[52] He was a sceptic and an atheist.[53]

Honours and awards[edit]

Cornforth was named the Australian of the Year in 1975,[54] jointly with Maj. Gen. Alan Stretton.[55] In 1977, Cornforth was recognised by his alma mater, the University of Sydney, with the award of an honorary Doctor of Science.[56][57] Cornforth's other awards and recognitions follow:

Cornforth's certificate of election for the Royal Society reads:

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c "Cornforth, Sir, John Warcup: Library and Archive Catalogue". London: The Royal Society. Archived from the original on 27 March 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c Battersby, Sir Alan R.; Young, Douglas W. (2015). "Sir John Warcup Cornforth AC CBE. 7 September 1917 – 8 December 2013". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society: rsbm20150016. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2015.0016. ISSN 0080-4606. 
  3. ^ a b c "John Cornforth". NNDB. Retrieved 1 July 2017. 
  4. ^ Hanson, Jim (2014). "John Cornforth (1917–2013) Nobel-prizewinning chemist who tracked how enzymes build cholesterol". Nature. 506 (7486): 35. Bibcode:2014Natur.506...35H. doi:10.1038/506035a. PMID 24499912. 
  5. ^ a b "Sir John Cornforth". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2012. 
  6. ^ Dean, Chris. "John 'Kappa' Cornforth". Vega Science Trust. Retrieved 1 July 2017. 
  7. ^ Chang, Kenneth (19 December 2013). "John W. Cornforth, 96, Nobel-Winning Chemist, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 July 2017. 
  8. ^ Deaf Scientist Corner – John Warcup Cornforth, Texas Woman's University
  9. ^ a b "John Cornforth". Royal Institution of Australia. Archived from the original on 14 January 2014. 
  10. ^ a b c d "Sir John Cornforth (1917–2013)". University of Sydney, School of Chemistry. Retrieved 1 July 2017. 
  11. ^ a b "John Cornforth – Biographical". Nobelprize.org. 2014. Retrieved 1 July 2017. 
  12. ^ a b "How the Cornforths started out in chemistry". University of Sydney, School of Chemistry. Retrieved 1 July 2017. 
  13. ^ John Cornforth Archived 15 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine., biotechnology-innovation.com.au
  14. ^ Sperans (18 January 1932). "Bright students: intermediate stage". The Sydney Morning Herald. p. 8. 
  15. ^ Doherty, P. C. (2006). The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize: A Life in Science. Columbia University Press. p. 89. 
  16. ^ "Patrons". Sydney High School Old Boys Union. 
  17. ^ Cribb, J. (6 September 2006). "Master of the molecules". Cosmos. Archived from the original on 5 September 2012. 
  18. ^ a b Eckert, Jim. "Jim Eckert writes about the Cornforth". University of Sydney, School of Chemistry. Archived from the original on 14 January 2014. 
  19. ^ "John Cornforth: Brilliant chemist was profoundly deaf". The Sydney Morning Herald. 14 December 2013. 
  20. ^ "Nobel Laureates – Chemistry". The University of Sydney. 
  21. ^ a b c "Notable Old Girls – History of St George Girls High School – Our School". St George Girls High School. Archived from the original on 2 July 2012. 
  22. ^ a b "History – Chemistry – The Cornforths". The University of Sydney. 
  23. ^ "St. George Girls' High School". The Sydney Morning Herald. 15 December 1931. 
  24. ^ "Bursaries: tenable at university". The Sydney Morning Herald. 17 February 1933. 
  25. ^ "Biographical memoirs: Arthur Birch". Australian Academy of Science. Archived from the original on 21 March 2014. 
  26. ^ a b "Scientific research". The Sydney Morning Herald. 1 July 1939. 
  27. ^ White, J.W. (5 February 1996). "Rita Cornforth Fellowships". Research School of Chemistry, ANU. 
  28. ^ Harradence, Rita Harriet (1938). Attempts to synthesise the pyridine analogue of vitamin B1 (M.Sc.). University of Sydney. Retrieved 1 July 2017 – via National Library of Australia. 
  29. ^ "Award History". 1851 Research Fellowship. 
  30. ^ "Sir John Cornforth 1917–2013". St Catherine's College, Oxford. 
  31. ^ Hargittai, I.; Hargittai, M. (2000). Candid Science: Conversations with Famous Chemists. London, UK: Imperial College Press. ISBN 1860942288. 
  32. ^ Cornforth, John Warcup (1941). Synthesis of analogues of steroid hormones (DPhil thesis). University of Oxford. 
  33. ^ "Winter 2009 Alumni Newsletter" (PDF). The University of Sydney United Kingdom Alumni Association. Winter 2009. 
  34. ^ "Obituary: Professor Sir John Cornforth". University of Sussex. 20 December 2013. 
  35. ^ Clarke, H. T.; Johnson, J. R.; Robinson, R., eds. (1949). The Chemistry of Penicillin. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 
  36. ^ "Professor George Joseph Popjak, MD, DSc, FRS: May 5, 1914 – December 30, 1998". Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. 19 (4): 830. 1999. doi:10.1161/01.ATV.19.4.830. 
  37. ^ "Sir John Cornforth Obituary". The Independent. 9 January 2014. 
  38. ^ "Rita Cornforth Fellowships". Australian National University. Retrieved 27 May 2016. 
  39. ^ Daintith, John; Gjertsen, Derek (1999). A Dictionary of Scientists (Abridged and updated ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p. 112. ISBN 0192800868. 
  40. ^ "Sir John Cornforth: School of Life Sciences". University of Sussex. Retrieved 1 July 2017. 
  41. ^ "Sir John Warcup Cornforth". The University of Sydney. 
  42. ^ "Cornforth, Rita (1915–2012)". Encyclopedia of Australian Science. 
  43. ^ a b "Sir John Cornforth". The Daily Telegraph. 9 January 2014. 
  44. ^ a b "Kappa interviewed by Bob Thomas". The Vega Science Trust. 
  45. ^ "Obituary: Dr Lady Rita Cornforth". University of Sydney. Archived from the original on 21 March 2014. 
  46. ^ "Lady Rita Harriet Cornforth: Obituary". Announce.Jpress. 
  47. ^ "Newsletter No. 29". The Suss-Ex Club. 2014. 
  48. ^ "Sir John Warcup Cornforth: Obituary". Sussex Express. 13 December 2013. 
  49. ^ Chang, Kenneth (20 December 2013). "John W. Cornforth, 96, Nobel-Winning Chemist, Dies". The New York Times. 
  50. ^ Young, Douglas (13 January 2014). "Sir John Cornforth obituary". The Guardian. 
  51. ^ "Obituary: Professor Sir John Cornforth". University of Sussex. Retrieved 18 December 2013. 
  52. ^ "John Warcup Cornforth, the only Australian to win Nobel Prize for chemistry, dies age 95". ABC Radio Australia. 
  53. ^ Kroto, Harold (2015). "Sir John Cornforth ('Kappa'): Some Personal Recollections". Australian Journal of Chemistry (68): 697–698. doi:10.1071/CH14601. 
  54. ^ Australian of the Year Awards – John Cornforth Archived 31 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine., Australian of the Year
  55. ^ Lewis, Wendy (2010). Australians of the Year. Pier 9 Press. ISBN 978-1-74196-809-5. 
  56. ^ "Prominent Alumni". University of Sydney. 
  57. ^ Andrews, Kirsten (17 December 2013). "Mourning the loss of Australia's only Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, Sir John Warcup Cornforth". University of Sydney. 
  58. ^ a b "Sir John Warcup Cornforth". University of Sydney, Faculty of Science. Retrieved 14 December 2013. 
  59. ^ "Sir J.W. (John) Cornforth jr. (1917–2013)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 18 March 2016. 
  60. ^ "Cornforth, John Warcup (AC)". It's an Honour: AC. Retrieved 14 December 2013. 
  61. ^ "Centenary Medal". It's an Honour. Retrieved 14 December 2013.