How the Cornforths started out in chemistry

John Cornforth holds the prizes he has just received as dux of Sydney High in 1933

John Cornforth holds the prizes he has just received as dux of Sydney High in 1933

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 on the right, 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 at the top of the page, John Cornforth holds the prizes he has just received as dux of Sydney High in 1933.

Organic staff and research students, 1929

Organic staff and research students, 1929

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.

John and Rita Cornforth, photo courtesy of I Hargittai, M Hargittai

John and Rita Cornforth, photo courtesy of I Hargittai, M Hargittai

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."

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.

Sources

  • Photo of John and Rita Cornforth courtesy of I. Hargittai, M. Hargittai, Candid Science: Conversations with Famous Chemists (London: Imperial College Press, 2000), pp. 123-137.
  • 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.
  • Basser's Classroom to the Nobel Prize: Sir John Cornforth, The High Bulletin, 50(2) (2003), 5.
  • Len Basser Legacy, The University of Sydney Gazette (November 2005), 7.

Len Basser

Len Basser

Len Basser

The University of Sydney Gazette of November 2005 reported: "When Federal Science and Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson presented the inaugural Len Basser Award for Leadership in Science at Sydney University in July, he was honouring the legacy of an outstanding chemistry teacher whose former students include eight Fellows of the Royal Society", among them Nobel Prize-winning organic chemist Sir John Cornforth and the Royal Society's President from 2000 to 2005 Lord May of Oxford. May was one of the first to gain a personal chair at Sydney University (in theoretical physics). He went on to hold chairs at Princeton and then Oxford (in biology), achieving international acclaim for his application of chaos theory to the analysis of animal population numbers and the spread of disease.

The Gazette continued: "Each of these outstanding scientists and researchers was inspired to pursue careers in science by Basser, who taught chemistry at Sydney Boys' High School from 1931 until his retirement in 1959." Through their work and the efforts of many other ex-students, "Basser's legacy" survives. Mind you, not all the boys felt the same way. He was a man of strong opinions and he expressed them with vigour. As a teacher he inspired/provoked the full spectrum of responses.

I had Len for chemistry in my last two years at High and, as I remember it, he taught the subject and healthy scepticism in more or less equal parts. He was also the Master-in-Charge of athletics and my mentor in the activity that seemed to me so important at the time. High jumping.

The photo above, from the School Magazine The Record, shows Len, with stop-watch in hand, acting as a time-keeper at the School Carnival. Helping us prepare for competition, he discouraged anything that smacked of "amateur hour". How he would have scorned triumphal gestures at the end of a race, especially if they were made when there was still the remotest chance of losing.

I realised even then. The way Len went about getting the best out of a group of athletes had much in common with the way he taught chemistry. Disconcerting. Challenging. And I can now add, unforgettable.