Sir John Cornforth

Sir John Cornforth

Sir John Cornforth with his wife Rita

A Nobel laureate who had a profound influence on the study of penicillin during the Second World War, Sir John Cornforth discovered through his studies at the University of Sydney that as a chemist he could enjoy great success, despite having been deaf since his teens.

“I entered the University at the age of 16, and though by that time unable to hear any lecture, I was attracted by laboratory work in organic chemistry - which I had done in an improvised laboratory at home since the age of 14 - and by the availability of the original chemical literature,” says Sir Cornforth, who received a Bachelor of Science (1938) and Masters of Science (1939) from the University.

After graduating with first-class honours and a University medal, Sir Cornforth won one of two 1851 Exhibition scholarships to work at Oxford with Sir Robert Robinson, an English Nobel laureate and the University’s first Professor of Pure and Applied Organic Chemistry (1912). The other recipient was Lady Rita Harradence, an organic chemist who also graduated from Sydney with a BSc (1937) and MSc (1938), and who would become Sir Cornforth’s wife in 1941.

Throughout Sir Cornforth’s career, Lady Cornforth proved to be what he described as his “most constant collaborator” due to her skills as a chemist and ability to communicate with him via lip-reading. Under Sir Robinson in Oxford, the pair made significant contributions to the study of penicillin and the synthesis of steroid hormones during the War. In 1953, Cornforth was elected into the Royal Society and was awarded the Chemical Society’s Corday Morgan medal.

From 1967, Sir Cornforth collaborated with chemist Hermann Eggerer, from the University of Munich, to solve the problem of the "asymmetric methyl group". This work laid the foundations for the research that would later earn him the 1975 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 1977, Sir Cornforth was knighted and received a Doctor of Science from the University. He was named Companion of the Order of Australia in 1991.