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Nobel Prize-winner John Cornforth’s 100th inspires Google Doodle

7 September 2017
Sir John championed a rigorous scientific approach to complex problems

Australia’s only winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, John Warcup Cornforth, met his research partner and wife Rita at Sydney before they both moved to Oxford; almost becoming centenarians, their impact is far-reaching.

It was perhaps Sir John’s determination to consult primary sources, and celebrate science as an ongoing endeavour, that made his work so precise and compelling.
Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence
John and Rita at the University of Sydney. Source: University of Sydney.

John and Rita at the University of Sydney. Source: University of Sydney.

“Scientists are apt to overvalue the importance of new discoveries - and to underrate the extent of their own ignorance. As citizens they cannot afford to be humble, but as scientists they must be.”

 ‘Scientists as Citizens’ lecture for the Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s 75th Anniversary

Australia’s only Nobel Prize-winner in Chemistry, Sir John Cornforth, died four years ago, the year after his wife Rita, also a University of Sydney chemistry alumnus, passed away – and now to mark what would have been his 100th birthday, Google has created a Doodle.

Going deaf from an early age, John Cornforth replaced lectures with textbooks and relied on Rita to lip-read and assist communication in sign language.

The University of Sydney historian, Associate Professor Julia Horne, said much had been written about Sir John’s achievements, and the important role of his wife and fellow researcher, Lady Cornforth, was also acknowledged: “Some awards have recognised his wife also, for example the University-wide Rita and John Cornforth Medal,” Associate Professor Horne said.

Sir John was an inspired science communicator and gained his Nobel Prize for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions; contributions which, as the Guardian stated, stimulated studies on the mechanism of a variety of enzyme-catalysed reactions, many of which are important targets in drug discovery. 

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence said the Cornforths personified the University’s tradition of life-long learning and research excellence.

“The Cornforths made a remarkable contribution to the world and it was perhaps Sir John’s determination to consult primary sources, and celebrate science as an ongoing endeavour, that made his work so precise and compelling,” Dr Spence said.

Head of the School of Chemistry Professor Philip Gale said he first became acquainted with Sir John’s earlier work while himself a young student at Oxford.

“As a young DPhil student at the University of Oxford I was aware of Sir John’s work early work on phenol-formaldehyde macrocycles… It’s a great honour to lead to the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney which provided Sir John with his first experiences of organic chemistry,” Professor Gale said.

Dean of the Faculty of Science Professor Trevor Hambley said: “Having had the good fortune to be present at Sir John’s lecture to mark the 75th Anniversary of the RACI, I can attest to what an extraordinary intellect he was and how wide his interests were.”

John Cornforth Jnr, a retired engineer living in Switzerland, previously described in a speech to the Royal Society of Chemistry how his father’s scientific training permeated other aspects of his life.

“He had a somewhat scientific attitude to gardening – he would always read the literature and then experiment himself … his interest in garden produce tended to stop at the kitchen door (but resume at the dining table).”

Eldest daughter Brenda Osborne, a retired general practitioner from the United Kingdom, added that her father was a loving family man who also had a great passion was poetry: “He had a gift of being able to read a poem perhaps only once and be able to recite it thereafter word perfect.”

Sydney biologist Dinah Hales remembers Sir John as a remarkable uncle in England: “He was a very active man … he liked to bushwalk, climb mountains and was also a chess champion,” said Dr Hales, who has retired from her role as associate professor at Macquarie University.

“He also helped me in my research, sending me samples of compounds and explaining aspects of steroid biology and chemistry,” she said.

Sir John and Lady Cornforth are survived by their children John Cornforth Jnr, Philippa Cornforth and Brenda Osborne.

Sir John's inspiring and poetic speech "Scientists as Citizens "is here.

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