Sir John Warcup Cornforth
John Warcup Cornforth was born on 7 September 1917 in Sydney. When he was about ten years old the first signs of deafness (from otosclerosis) became noticeable. The total loss of his hearing was a process that lasted more than a decade, but it was sufficiently gradual for him to attend Sydney Boys' High School and to profit from the teaching there. In particular a good young teacher, Leonard Basser, influenced him in the direction of chemistry. Basser went on to influence many others who became distinguished scientists, including Sir Robert May, now President of the Royal Society.
Cornforth entered Sydney University at the age of 16, and though by that time unable to hear any lecture he was attracted by laboratory work in organic chemistry (which he had done in an improvised laboratory at home since the age of 14) and by the availability of the original chemical literature. In 1937 he graduated with first-class honours and a University medal. After a year of post-graduate research he won an 1851 Exhibition scholarship to work at Oxford with Robert Robinson (who had been the first Professor of Organic Chemistry at Sydney). Two such scholarships were awarded each year, and the other was won by Rita Harradence, also of Sydney and also an organic chemist. This began a lifelong personal and professional association. They were married in 1941, and have three children and two grandchildren.
War broke out as Cornforth and Harradence journeyed to Oxford and after completing their work (on steroid synthesis) for doctorates they made significant contributions to the chemical effort on penicillin which was the major chemical project in Robinson's laboratory during the war. But Cornforth had earlier discovered what was to prove a key reaction for the synthesis of the sterols and he resumed this project when the war ended.
The collaboration with Robinson continued after he joined (1946) the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council and worked at its National Institute, first at Hampstead and then at Mill Hill. In the end (1951) they were able to complete, simultaneously with Woodward at Harvard, the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids. At the National Institute for Medical Research he came into contact with biological scientists and formed collaborative projects with several of them. In particular George Popják and he shared an interest in cholesterol and they began to collaborate in studies of its synthesis in living organisms.
In 1962 Popják and he left the service of the Medical Research Council and became co-directors of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology set up by Shell Research Ltd. Lord Rothschild was influential in the decision to establish this laboratory. At Milstead a project already conceived - the study of the stereochemistry of enzymic reactions by means of asymmetry artificially introduced by isotopic substitution - was developed. It continued after 1968, when Popják left Milstead to go to the University of California at Los Angeles, until 1975, when Cornforth became Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Sussex. In 1967 he had formed a collaboration with Hermann Eggerer, then of München; and together they solved the problem of the "asymmetric methyl group", a carbon atom to which all three isotopes of hydrogen are attached in a particular spatial orientation. This group has been used to explore the stereochemical course of many enzymic reactions vital to the functioning of living cells. Cornforth's 1975 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for "his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions."
Cornforth received the CBE in 1972, was knighted in 1977, and was made Companion of the Order of Australia in 1991. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1953; and holds its Davy, Royal and Copley Medals. The last of these is the Society's oldest medal and was held by Captain James Cook. The Royal Society of Chemistry, formerly the Chemical Society, awarded him its Corday-Morgan and Flintoff Medals, its Pedler and Robert Robinson lectureships, its Millennium Fellowship, and lastly its Honorary Fellowship (2001). The American Chemical Society gave him its Ernest Guenther award (1968). He and Popják were jointly awarded the Biochemical Society's first Ciba Medal in 1965. Until her retirement in 1975 his wife was his most constant collaborator, her outstanding experimental skill making many major contributions to the work.
Cornforth retired from his Professorship in 1982 but continues to
work at the University of Sussex.