Learning chemistry through reading and laboratory work, John Cornforth is widely recognised for his work and shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1975.
John Cornforth was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1917. Aged ten he began to notice the first signs of deafness, a result of otosclerosis, and by the time he commenced his undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, aged sixteen, he was unable to hear the lecturers. At school he had realised a career in chemistry would not be inhibited by his handicap, and he pursued his interest in organic chemistry through reading textbooks, papers and conducting practical laboratory work.
After graduating in 1937 with first class honours, he was awarded the prestigious 1851 Exhibition Scholarship by the Royal Society, to conduct a PhD in steroid synthesis at the University of Oxford in the research group of the famous organic chemist Robert Robinson. Two such scholarships were awarded that year, the second being to another organic chemist from Sydney, Rita Harradence. The pair married in 1941 and went on to have three children, with Rita also becoming his research partner and interpreter. He said of Rita:
“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, and her encouragement and fortitude have been my strongest supports.”
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Cornforth turned his attention to stabilising and purifying the drug penicillin and contributed to Robinson’s work: The Chemistry of Penicillin (Princeton University Press, 1949). However, after the war he returned to his first interest: the synthesis of sterols. Cornforth joined the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council in 1946 and worked at its National Institute, continuing to work with his former PhD supervisor Robert Robinson. In 1951, the group completed the first total synthesis of non-aromatic steroids.
Whilst at the National Institute for Medical Research, Cornforth collaborated with several biological scientists, including George Popják, with whom he shared an interest in cholesterol. They devised a complete carbon-by-carbon degradation of the nineteen-carbon ring structure of cholesterol and used radioactive tracers to identify the arrangement of the acetic acid molecules from which the system was built. This work gave Cornforth the tools necessary to study the stereochemistry of numerous enzyme reactions, such as the synthesis of steroids from mevalonic acid via squalene.
Nobel Prize in chemistry
In 1962, Cornforth left the Medical Research Council and became a co-director of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology, created by Shell Research Ltd. He studied the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions using asymmetry that was artificially introduced by isotopic substitution. It was this work that earned Cornforth the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1975 (along with Vladimir Prelog) and a CBE in 1977.
Many other awards and accolades were bestowed upon Cornforth during his lifetime: he was elected to the Royal Society in 1953, awarded the Corday Morgan medal by the Chemical Society in 1953, and the American Chemical Society awarded him the Ernest Guenther award in 1968, among many others. After winning the Nobel Prize, Cornforth became a professor at the University of Sussex, remaining there until his retirement. Sir John Cornforth passed away on 8 December 2013.
The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Rita and John Cornforth Award is named in honour of John and his wife.
Words by Vicki Marshall
Main image © Bettman/Corbis; insert image © University of Sussex
Published August 2014