John Cornforth

For other people named John Cornforth, see John Cornforth (disambiguation).
Sir John Cornforth
Born John Warcup Cornforth, Jr.
(1917-09-07)7 September 1917
Sydney, Australia
Died 8 December 2013(2013-12-08) (aged 96)
Sussex, England, United Kingdom
Residence Brighton, United Kingdom
Citizenship Australian,
Nationality Australian
Fields Organic chemistry
Alma mater
Thesis Synthesis of analogues of steroid hormones (1941)
Doctoral advisor Robert Robinson
Known for Stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions
Notable awards
Spouse Rita Harradence

Sir John Warcup "Kappa" Cornforth, Jr.,[3] AC, CBE, FRS, FAA (7 September 1917 – 8 December 2013), was an AustralianBritish 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

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.[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 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.[13]


Cornforth was educated at Sydney Boys' High School, whereat he academically excelled, 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 the 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. At the time, he could not use hearing aids as the sound became distorted, and he did not significantly use lip reading.

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 M.Sc. 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 Ph.D. in chemistry could be done in Australia.[34]


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.[35]

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,[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 1965-71.[37]

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.[38][39]

In 1977, Cornforth was recognised by his alma mater, the University of Sydney, with the award of an honorary Doctor of Science.[40][41]

Cornforth was a professor at the University of Sussex in Brighton and remained active in research until his death.[42][43]

Personal life

In 1941, the year in which they graduated from the University of Oxford, Cornforth married Rita Harriet Harradence (b. 1915),[5][21][44] with whom he would have one son and two daughters, John and Brenda and Philippa, respectively.[3][45] 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.[46] Rita Cornforth died on 6 November 2012,[47] at home with her family around her,[48] following a long illness.[49]

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.[46]

Cornforth died in Sussex on 8 December 2013.[45][50][51][52] at the age of 96.[53] Cornforth is survived by his three children and four grandchildren.[54] He was a skeptic and an atheist.[55]

Honours and awards

Cornforth was named the Australian of the Year in 1975,[56] jointly with Maj. Gen. Alan Stretton.[57] Cornforth's other awards and recognitions follow:

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

Distinguished as an Organic Chemist of outstanding originality and exceptional experimental skill, particularly in microchemical manipulation. He was the first to attribute the correct constitution to penicillamine and to synthesise the amino-acid. After making significant contributions to the synthesis of penicillin he notably developed the chemistry of the oxazole group and made oxazole itself for the first time.

The important share he took in the total synthesis of androgenic hormones and other steroids is gratefully recognised by all his collaborators in the investigation. Miscellaneous work on natural products and chemotherapy equally displays individual thought, invention, and superlative technical accomplishment.[1]


  1. 1 2 3 "Cornforth, Sir, John Warcup: Library and Archive Catalogue". London: The Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2014-03-27.
  2. 1 2 3 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. 1 2 3 John Cornforth, NNDB
  4. Hanson, Jim (2014). "John Cornforth (1917–2013) Nobel-prizewinning chemist who tracked how enzymes build cholesterol". Nature. 506 (7486): 35. doi:10.1038/506035a. PMID 24499912.
  5. 1 2 Encyclopædia Britannica. (2012.) "Sir John Cornforth".
  6. Video interview with scientist John `Kappa` Cornforth who was born in Australia,
  7. Obituary of Cornforth, NYTimes
  8. Deaf Scientist Corner - John Warcup Cornforth, Texas Woman's University
  9. 1 2 John Cornforth, Royal Institution of Australia
  10. 1 2 3 4 Sir John Cornforth - Chemistry, The University of Sydney
  11. John Cornforth - Autobiography,
  12. 1 2 Jim Eckert writes about the Cornforths, The University of Sydney
  13. John Cornforth,
  14. Sperans. (1932.) "Bright students: intermediate stage", The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January.
  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. (2006.) Master of the molecules, Cosmos, 6 September.
  18. 1 2 Eckert, Jim. "Jim Eckert writes about the Cornforth". University of Sydney School of Chemistry.
  19. "John Cornforth: Brilliant chemist was profoundly deaf". The Sydney Morning Herald. 14 December 2013.
  20. Nobel Laureates - Chemistry, The University of Sydney
  21. 1 2 3 "Notable Old Girls - History of St George Girls High School - Our School". St George Girls High School.
  22. 1 2 "History - Chemistry - The Cornforths". The University of Sydney.
  23. The Sydney Morning Herald. (1931.) "St. George Girls' High School", The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December.
  24. The Sydney Morning Herald. (1933.) Bursaries: tenable at university, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February.
  25. "Biographical memoirs: Arthur Birch". Australian Academy of Science.
  26. 1 2 The Sydney Morning Herald. (1939.) Scientific research, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July.
  27. White, J.W. (5 February 1996). "Research School of Chemistry, ANU - Rita Cornforth Fellowships".
  28. "Untitled, caption of part i reads Attempts to synthesise the pyridine analogue of vitamin B1.". National Library of Australia Trove.
  29. "Award History". 1851 Alumni of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.
  30. "Sir John Cornforth 1917 - 2013". St Catherine's College, Oxford.
  31. Hargittai I. and Hargittai M. (2000.) Candid Science: Conversations with Famous Chemists, Imperial College Press, London, United Kingdom. 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, Princeton University Press, NJ.
  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. Daintith, John; Gjertsen, Derek (1999). A Dictionary of scientists (Abridged and updated ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 112. ISBN 0192800868.
  39. "John Cornforth - Biographical". Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  40. "Prominent Alumni". University of Sydney.
  41. Andrews, Kirsten (17 December 2013). "Mourning the loss of Australia's only Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, Sir John Warcup Cornforth". University of Sydney.
  42. Sir John Cornforth : About the School : School of Life Sciences : University of Sussex
  43. Sir John Warcup Cornforth - About Us, The University of Sydney
  44. "Cornforth, Rita (1915–2012)". Encyclopedia of Australian Science.
  45. 1 2 "Sir John Cornforth". The Telegraph. 9 January 2014.
  46. 1 2 "Kappa interviewed by Bob Thomas". The Vega Science Trust.
  47. "Obituary: Dr Lady Rita Cornforth". University of Sydney.
  48. "Lady Rita Harriet Cornforth: Obituary". Announce.Jpress.
  49. "Newsletter No. 29". The Suss-Ex Club. 2014.
  50. "Sir John Warcup Cornforth: Obituary". Sussex Express. 13 December 2013.
  51. Chang, Kenneth. "John W. Cornforth, 96, Nobel-Winning Chemist, Dies". The New York Times.
  52. Young, Douglas (13 January 2014). "Sir John Cornforth obituary". The Guardian.
  53. "University of Sussex - Obituary: Professor Sir John Cornforth". Retrieved 18 December 2013.
  54. "John Warcup Cornforth, the only Australian to win Nobel Prize for chemistry, dies age 95". ABC Radio Australia.
  56. Australian of the Year Awards - John Cornforth, Australian of the Year
  57. Lewis, Wendy (2010). Australians of the Year. Pier 9 Press. ISBN 978-1-74196-809-5.
  58. 1 2 University of Sydney, Faculty of Science: Sir John Warcup Cornforth. 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. It's an Honour: AC. Retrieved 14 December 2013
  61. It's an Honour: Centenary Medal. Retrieved 14 December 2013
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