the cornforth fund for chemistry

Jim Eckert writes about the Cornforths


This is mainly about the early years. How they found their way into chemistry.

John Cornforth, in a recent letter to the President of the Sydney High School Old Boys’ Union, explained why he remembers his chemistry teacher at High, Len Basser, “with respect and affection”.

Cornforth had begun to lose his hearing at the age of 10, a result of the progressive disease otosclerosis, and would be completely deaf by his early 20s. He wrote: “After my third year at High I had to make a change in direction. I had previously studied Latin … and had no particular vision of a future career except maybe in Law. But I was getting deafer all the time and this could become worse but never better. I needed some career that a deaf man could follow and in two years under Len’s influence my future course as an organic chemist was charted.”

What he gained from Basser, he said, was “the conviction that science is an ongoing cultural activity more interesting and more important than any other (not a widely held view at the time). And before I went to Sydney University he introduced me to Dr Victor Martin Trikojus. Trikojus was a lecturer in organic chemistry who gave me some vacation work in his lab, my first taste of the biological side of chemistry that was later to be my main area of operation”.

In the photo below, taken in 1929 of the Organic staff and research students, Trikojus (who would go on to take the Chair of Biochemistry at Melbourne University) sits on the left, with Organic professor John Earl in the centre and Francis Lions on the right; and in the photo below that, John Cornforth holds the prizes he has just received as dux of Sydney High in 1933.

Cornforth went up to the University the following year, at age 16. He described his situation in a later biographical note: “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.” When he graduated in 1938, it was 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. So too did a talented Sydney colleague Rita Harradence who, like John, had been drawn to chemistry by an inspirational teacher at school, in Rita’s case, Miss Lilian Whiteoak of St George Girls’ High. As War broke out, John and Rita travelled to Oxford. The two had first met earlier, in the lab, when Rita called on John’s glass-blowing skill to repair a broken Claisen flask. It was the start of what turned out to be a hugely productive life-long partnership.

In Oxford, they worked for their doctorates on steroid synthesis, writing their theses in 1941 and marrying the same year. The major project in Robinson’s laboratory during the War was unravelling the chemistry of penicillin and, in 1943, the Cornforths joined the team.

After the war, they moved to the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research in London, continuing an odyssey that is well-documented elsewhere. Among the references given below is the text of Cornforth’s Nobel Lecture Asymmetry and Enzyme Action. There, you can read his own account of the work carried out at the National Institute and later at Shell Research’s Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology that led to the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1975 (which he shared with Vladimir Prelog).

Accepting the Nobel Prize, Cornforth paid this tribute to Rita: “Throughout my scientific career my wife has been my most constant collaborator. Her experimental skill made major contributions to the work; she has eased for me beyond measure the difficulties of communication that accompany deafness; her encouragement and fortitude have been my strongest supports.”

John and Rita Cornforth

The references below also include a paper Scientists as Citizens, the text of a public lecture Cornforth delivered in 1992 on the occasion of the RACI’s 75th birthday (and incidentally, his own). I think you will enjoy his turn-of-phrase. For example: “A few hundred years ago – a mere breath of time – a concentrated source of energy was discovered in the fossil fuels: essentially, the energy of old sunlight trapped by life and buried by the earth. Humanity has exploited this resource with all the restraint of a fox in a chicken house.”

Doubt, he noted, is the foundation of science: “It may seem odd that a system of knowledge based on doubt could have been the driving force in constructing modern civilization. At its foundation in 1660 the Royal Society of London, for improving natural knowledge, was given by a quaint and still surviving custom a coat of arms and a motto. One motto considered was Quantum nescimus, which translates as “What a lot we don’t know”. It is a good motto and I don’t know why it was not adopted. Perhaps some much mistaken person thought that it wouldn’t be true for long enough. In the end, the one chosen was Nullius in verba. This means, from its original context, “We take nobody’s word for it”.”

He concluded: “Scientists have some influence on how science is taught; and they have in the schools the opportunity to start the sceptical revolution.” Len Basser couldn’t have put it better.

Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary. Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).

John Cornforth, Asymmetry and Enzyme Action, from Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1971-1980, Ed.-in-charge Tore Frängsmyr, Ed. Sture Forsén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore (1993); Autobiography, from Les Prix Nobel en 1975, Ed. Wilhelm Odelberg, Nobel Foundation, Stockholm (1976).

Sir John Cornforth, Scientists as Citizens, Aust.J.Chem., 46 (1993), 265.

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