Cornforth, John Warcup

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John Warcup Cornforth

Australian John Warcup Cornforth (born 1917) received a portion of the 1975 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions. Stereochemistry deals with the architecture (shapes) of molecules and the way their three-dimensional structure affects chemical properties.

Scientist's Early Life

The second of four children, John Warcup Cornforth was born in Sydney, Australia, on September 7, 1917. His father, J. W. Cornforth, was an Oxford University graduate, and his mother, Hilda Eipper Cornforth, came from a German family who had immigrated to Australia in the mid-1800s.

Cornforth, who began practicing chemistry in his teens at an improvised home laboratory, spent part of his childhood in Sydney and part in Armidale, New South Wales. He was diagnosed with otosclerosis when he was almost 12, having suffered from increasing hearing loss since age 10. However, he was able to attend regular classes at the Sydney Boys' High School, where he did well. By the time Cornforth entered Sydney University at age 16, he was completely deaf.

Cornforth was unable to hear any of his college lectures but demonstrated to his professors a marked talent for laboratory work in organic chemistry. By dint of this hands-on lab work and close attention to his college textbooks, he completed his undergraduate work at Sydney University in 1937 with first-class honors and a university medal. Cornforth spent a year doing post-graduate research, received a master's degree in 1938, and then in 1939 won one of two annual scholarships to study chemistry with 1947 Nobel Prize winner Robert Robinson at England's Oxford University. The other scholarship winner was fellow organic chemist Rita Harradence, whom he would marry in 1941—the same year they received their doctorates from Oxford.

Began Professional Life as Chemist with Wife

During World War II, the new couple worked with Robinson at Oxford to determine the central molecule of the life-saving antibiotic penicillin. (Although Cornforth would like to have returned to his native Australia to do research, the country at that time did not offer any work to chemists unable to lecture.) The Cornforths also began investigating the problem of chemical synthesis in steroids (compounds that are integral to plants' and animals' cellular structures). Rita, equally brilliant in organic chemistry, helped her husband communicate with others and collaborated closely with him at all times, since Cornforth depended completely on lip-reading and written communication by 1945.

While continuing his work with Robinson, Cornforth began working in 1946 for the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) at Hampstead and then at its Mill Hill Research Laboratories in London. During this period, he developed his technique for studying the stereochemical processes of enzymes, whereby he was able to show the pathways of biochemical processes. (The study of stereochemistry is considered vital to understanding the organic world at its most basic biochemical level. It has been called a "point of view" in chemistry, which shows how things fit together at the molecular level and how they affect taste and smell.)

Studied Origins of Cholesterol and Other Steroids

In 1949, Cornforth helped Robinson write The Chemistry of Penicillin, which detailed the huge international effort that went into the important wartime project. Cornforth and his NIMR team, simultaneously with chemist Robert Wood, succeeded in their goal of completing the first total synthesis of the cholesterol molecule in 1951. At the NIMR, Cornforth also began what would become a 20-year collaboration with George Popják, who was also interested in the cholesterol molecule. Cornforth wanted to find out how cells actually synthesized cholesterol, so he used labeled isotopes of hydrogen to trace the chemical steps of the process from its originals in acetic acid. (It was for this ingenious technique that he won a portion of the 1975 Nobel Prize.) Historical records show that Rita actually carried out many of the experiments during this project.

Meanwhile, Cornforth continued his work on the synthesis and description of the structure of many natural products, including plant hormones and olefins, synthetic substances used in textiles. He completed the biosynthesis of many other steroids and was able to trace more than a dozen stereochemical steps in the biosynthesis of squalene, a precursor of cholesterol that is widely distributed in nature. Cornforth published his findings in the Journal of the Chemical Society in 1959.

In 1962, Cornforth and Popják left the NIMR together and became joint directors of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology of Shell Research Limited at Sittingbourne in Kent. The first project they worked on was an effort to understand the stereochemistry of enzymatic reactions by using isotopic substitution to artificially introduce asymmetry. In 1967 Cornforth had also begun collaborating on the asymmetrical methyl group with Hermann Eggerer. Popják left Milstead in 1968 for new work in California, leaving Cornforth as the sole director at Milstead. Later that year, Cornforth published the results of his latest study in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Despite his heavy research schedule, Cornforth agreed in 1965 to take on the added responsibility of a post as associate professor in molecular sciences at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. He remained in that post until 1971, when he accepted a similar position at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. During his stints as professor at the schools, the scientist discovered a love of teaching the subject about which he was so passionate. In fact, he decided in 1975 to teach at the University of Sussex full-time as a Royal Society Research Professor, leaving Milstead at age 58. Also that year, he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Swiss chemist Vladimir Prelog.

By this time, Cornforth had received numerous awards for his contributions to chemistry, including the Corday-Morgan Medal of the Chemical Society of London (1953); the Biochemical Society's CIBA Medal (1965); the Davy Medal of the Royal Society (1968); the Guenther Award of the American Chemical Society (1969); the Royal Society Award in 1976; and a knighthood in 1977. In his acceptance speech for the Australian of the Year award in 1975, Cornfield addressed the issue of science as a business, saying scientists must require of themselves "not to believe, but to test, check and balance all theories, including their own."

Cornforth taught regular classes at the University of Sussex until 1982, when he was granted emeritus status. He also won the prestigious Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1982. Cornforth remained at Sussex following his emeritus status, and despite his intimidating resume is affectionately known as "Kappa" Cornforth. He is an active researcher at the university labs. In 2000, an interview with Cornforth appeared in a 2000 book by Istvan Hargittai titled Candid Science: Conversations with Famous Chemists. Cornforth and his wife lent their name to a new foundation at the University of Sydney in 2002: the Cornforth Foundation will support teaching in the field of organic chemistry. The scientist and his wife spend part of their time in Saxon Down, Cuilfail, Lewes, in England. He holds memberships in many scientific academies in Australia, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, and England.

Cornforth, whose colleagues have described him as having a warm and outgoing personality, excels in numerous leisure activities, notably chess, which he reportedly plays in a manner comparable to his approach to stereochemistry. He has also become somewhat more political in his later years and occasionally speaks out on environmental and societal issues, using his status as a Nobel Prize winner to add weight to his statements. In 2003, Cornforth and many other Nobel Prize winners signed a widely publicized petition affirming the truth of global warming and demanding action to remedy its effects—especially on the "poor and disenfranchised, [who]…live a marginal existence in equatorial climates. Global warming, not of their making but originating with the wealthy few, will affect their fragile ecologies most." In signing the missive, Cornforth expressed his belief that, "…we must persist in the quest for united action to counter both global warming and a weaponized world. These twin goals will constitute vital components of stability as we move toward the wider degree of social justice that alone gives hope of peace." Cornforth also plays tennis well and still enjoys gardening. He and his wife have three children: a son, John, and two daughters, Brenda and Philippa, as well as several grandchildren.


American Men and Women of Science, The Gale Group, 2003.

Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists, Institute of Physics Publishing, 1994.


"Cornforth, John Warcup" University of Melbourne Bright SPARCS website, (December 21, 2003).

"Cornforth, Sir John," Britannica Online website, (December 21, 2003).

"Face2Face with John Cornforth," Vega Science Trust website, (December 21, 2003).

"John Cornforth—Autobiography," Nobel e-Museum website, (December 21, 2003).

"John Cornforth," The Gale Group Biography Resource Center website, (January 8, 2004).

"Sir John Cornforth," Australian of the Year website, (January 8, 2004).

"Sir John Cornforth: Emeritus Professor," University of Sussex website, (December 21, 2003).

"Social Justice Alone Gives Hope of Peace," website, (January 9, 2004).