Obituary: Professor Sir John Cornforth

Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Sir John Cornforth, who died on 8 December at the age of 96, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1975 - the same year that he came to work at Sussex.

Sir John CornforthBorn in Sydney, Australia in 1917, Cornforth was the son of a Classics teacher from England and his Australian wife.

At the age of just 16 he was accepted as a chemistry student by the University of Sydney. By the time he finished his degree he was profoundly deaf, having started to lose his hearing at the age of 10.

After postgraduate work in Australia, in 1939 Cornforth was awarded one of two scholarships to study at the University of Oxford. (At that time there was no facility to do a chemistry PhD in Australia.) In 1941, the year in which Cornforth completed his work for a doctorate on steroid synthesis, he married the other of the two scholars, fellow Australian Rita Harradence.

In 1946 he joined the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council, where he shared an interest in cholesterol with the Hungarian scientist George Popják.

In 1962 Cornforth left the Medical Research Council and he and Popják became co-directors of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology, set up in Sittingbourne, Kent by Shell Research.

He and Popják devised a complete carbon-by-carbon degradation of the 19-carbon ring structure of cholesterol and identified the intimate and complex detail of how cholesterol is synthesised from simple building blocks in nature. The stereochemical aspects of this work eventually led to Cornforth's Nobel Prize.

Cornforth’s connections with Sussex predated his move to the University in 1975. Several of the Sussex chemical faculty had research interests in the area of biosynthesis of terpenoid compounds and there was much interaction between the laboratories at Sittingbourne and Sussex at that time. Several Sussex DPhil students spent time in the Cornforth laboratories and ex-Sussex scientists were employed in Cornforth’s group at Shell. Cornforth’s son John also completed an Engineering DPhil at Sussex.

In 1975 Cornforth moved from Shell to take up a Royal Society Professorship at Sussex and during his first year in post he was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry “for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions”.

Over the years that followed he received many other prestigious prizes and honorary degrees. Among these honorary degrees was the degree of Doctor of Science in 1977 from the University of Sussex. At the ceremony in the Brighton Dome his wife Rita, an extremely gifted scientist in her own right, was awarded the same degree.

In 1982, with the award of the Royal Society Copley Medal, Cornforth became one of only four living Fellows of the Royal Society to have been honoured with three Royal Society medals (Davey, Copley and Royal).

A knighthood in 1977 (after an earlier CBE in 1972) was followed in 1991 with becoming a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) and in 2001 with an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Following his earlier major contributions to the understanding of biological enzyme catalysed reactions, when he came to Sussex Cornforth embarked on an extremely ambitious research project to develop purely synthetic compounds that would perform some of these catalytic reactions in the laboratory. One of the results of this work was a successful international meeting at Sussex on models of enzyme action, at which several Nobel Laureates were plenary lecturers.

After his official retirement in 1982, aged 65, Cornforth continued to carry out research at Sussex until he was nearly 90, sharing a laboratory with Professor Jim Hanson and latterly with Professor Phil Parsons.

He worked among young postgraduates who, as Professor Parsons says, “were all very excited by his presence in the laboratory”.

Another former colleague, Professor Douglas Young, recalls: “In spite of his deafness, Kappa [Cornforth’s nickname] gave inspiring undergraduate and postgraduate lectures that were models of clarity.

“His presence in the research laboratories inspired members of other research groups as well as his own and he helped many young research students to overcome technical problems with kindness and understanding based on years of experience.

“In research seminars his comments were invariably extremely perceptive, although he would not have heard a word that the speaker had said.”

His reputation attracted many distinguished visitors to the University and several important scientific conferences relating to his research interests were held on campus.

During this period Cornforth published some key papers on purely chemical topics, solving a long-outstanding structural problem to which erroneous assignments had been made by several groups over the years; providing a new, elegant synthesis of the terpenoid abscisic acid; and continuing work in the area of heterocyclic chemistry, an area he had first worked on in his youth at the University of Sydney.

He also travelled around the world to give lectures and last lectured in Australia in 1992, when he told the students: “When Rita and I were learning our chemistry here, chemistry was not really very difficult. There was not really all that much to know. Now I am sorry for you people because there really is a lot to know.”