Vale Sir John cornforth

By Harriet Veitch

Image of John and Rita Cornforth

Sir John and Rita Cornforth

The University has lost one of its most distinguished alumni with the death of Sir John Cornforth, the only Australian scientist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Sir John, who passed away in December, aged 96, shared the 1975 prize with Bosnian chemist Vladimir Prelog for “their efforts to relate molecular structure to the properties of chemical compounds”.

John Warcup Cornforth (BSc ’38 MSc ’39 DSc ’77) was born in Sydney in 1917, the second of four children. At the age of 10 he started to go deaf and by 20 he was completely deaf. Luckily, at Sydney Boys High School, a teacher steered Cornforth towards chemistry, which offered a career where his deafness might not be a handicap. He was accepted into the University at 16 and, because he couldn’t hear the lectures, he started reading textbooks, which in those days were mostly in German, so he taught himself German as well. He graduated with a bachelor of science, with first class honours and the University Medal.

After some postgraduate work in Australia, in 1939 Cornforth was awarded one of two 1851 Exhibition scholarships to study at Oxford. The other winner of the scholarship was Rita Harradence (BSc ’37 MSc ’38), who he had already met in the laboratory.

Equipment was so hard to get in those days that Cornforth had taught himself glass-blowing so he could repair things, and Harradence asked him to fix a flask she had broken. Expensive equipment was also the reason for Cornforth’s lifelong nickname of “Kappa”, because he used to engrave the Greek symbol on his glasswear to stop other students walking off with it.

Cornforth and Harradence arrived in Oxford just as the Second World War started and after they had finished their doctoral work, they became part of the group doing chemical studies of the new drug, penicillin. In 1941 the pair married and Rita became his co-researcher and interpreter. They collaborated on 41 scientific papers. After the war Australia had few openings for research chemists who could not lecture, so the Cornforths stayed in England. In 1946, he joined the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council and in 1951 his team completed the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids.

At the Institute he shared an interest in cholesterol with the Hungarian scientist George Popjak. Together they identified the arrangement of the acetic acid molecules from which the structure of cholesterol is built, work that eventually led to Cornforth’s Nobel prize.

In 1962, Cornforth and Popjak left the Medical Research Council and became co-directors of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology, set up by Shell Research Ltd. In 1975 Cornforth left Milstead to become Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Sussex.

That same year came the Nobel prize. Rita heard the news of his award on the radio and told him. “I think that’s the day I remember with the most pleasure in my experimental life,” he recalled in 2006. “I was quite surprised. I had estimated my chances at about one in three. As for the ceremony, I couldn’t hear a word of what was said. And so, as usual, I amused myself by looking around at the audience.”

Cornforth continued lecturing at the University of Sussex until he retired. In 2011 the University of Sydney established the Rita and John Cornforth Medal, as part of the annual Alumni Awards, to honour PhD graduates for academic excellence.

Sir John Cornforth is survived by his children Brenda, John and Philippa, grandchildren Catherine and Andrew and four great-grandchildren. Lady Rita died in 2012.

This obituary has been edited from an article originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.