Obituaries: John Cornforth

(b 7 September 1917, d 8 December 2013)

John Warcup Cornforth AC FAA FRS Nobel Laureate was born in Sydney, the second of four children to British-born parents John Warcup Cornforth and Hilda Eipper. Cornforth began to lose hearing at just 10 years old; later diagnosed with otosclerosis, he was profoundly deaf by the age of 20.

An outstanding student at Sydney Boys High, Cornforth was inspired to study chemistry by teacher Leonard Basser. When he arrived at The University of Sydney in 1930, he could not hear the lectures so he turned to reading chemistry textbooks – as most of these were written in German, he taught himself German.

While at The University of Sydney, Cornforth met future wife Rita Harradance in the lab after she had broken a flask, which he mended using his expertise in glassblowing. Their remarkable scientific and life partnership was to span more than 75 years. Dr Harradance received her Bachelor of Science and won the University Medal in 1936, with Cornforth duplicating both achievements the following year. In 1939, they both won Science Research Scholarships (the 1851 Research Fellowship) to pursue doctoral degrees at the University of Oxford.

In the early 1940s, the couple worked as part of the Oxford team studying penicillin, and with few openings for research chemists in Australia after the war, they remained in England. Cornforth returned to working on steroid synthesis, and in 1946 he and Rita joined the Medical Research Council’s National Institute and began collaborating with biochemists, particularly Professor George Popják FRS. In 1951, Cornforth’s team was able to complete the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids. Eleven years later, Popják and Cornforth left to become co-directors of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology set up by Shell Research Ltd.  

Cornforth was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1953, and in 1975 he was appointed Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Sussex. Two years later, he became a Corresponding Member of the Australian Academy of Science.

In 1975, Cornforth received the highest honour of his career, sharing the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. To date, he is the only Australian to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

The accolades continued when he was named Australian of the Year in 1975, and received a knighthood in 1977. He was awarded the Copley medal by the Royal Society of London in 1982 and continued lecturing at the University of Sussex until he retired. He last lectured in Australia in 1992 for the 75th anniversary of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.

Cornforth passed away on 8 December, 2013. He is survived by his three children, two grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

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