School of Life Sciences

Sir John Cornforth

Professor Cornforth (affectionally known as Kappa to his friends) was born in Sydney, Australia in 1917. His childhood was spent in Sydney and in New South Wales. During his early years Kappa developed a hearing disorder which left him profoundly deaf over a period of 10 years. However he became very interested in chemistry and at the young age of 16 went to Sydney to start a career in organic chemistry which had been initiated at the tender age of 14 in a home laboratory.

Kappa won an 1851 Exhibition scholarship to work at Oxford with Sir Robert Robertson. Two scholarships were awarded each year and the other was won by his wife to be, Rita. Both Kappa and Rita completed their work for doctorates at Oxford on steroid synthesis. In 1946 he joined the Medical Research Council, first at Hampstead and then at Mill Hill where he worked with Ellen Fawaz the wife to be of my former PhD supervisor.  

Kappa worked at the National Institute for Medical Research with biological scientists and with George Popják and identified by means of radioactive tracers the arrangement of the acetic acid molecules in cholesterol. In 1962 Popják and Kappa joined the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology as co-directors under the direction of Lord Rothschild.  

Kappa joined the University of Sussex in 1975 to take up the position of Royal Society Research Professor where his work attracted major prizes culminating in the Nobel Prize in 1975. He continued to carry out research at the University of Sussex sharing a laboratory with Professor Jim Hanson and latterly with Professor Phil Parsons.  Kappa worked in the laboratory until he was almost 90 years old amongst young postgraduates who were all very excited by his presence in the laboratory.

Kappa died on the 8th of December 2013 - his wife Rita died in 2012.

His colleague Douglas Young wrote an obituary in the Guardian