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John Cornforth

John Cornforth

Born: 1917, Sydney

John ‘Kappa’ Cornforth entered the University of Sydney at the age of 16. Although he suffered progressive hearing loss since childhood and was deaf by the time he reached his teens, he successfully studied organic chemistry and graduated with first-class honours and the University Medal in 1937.

Professor Cornforth then won a scholarship to Oxford (as did his future wife, Rita Harradence, also a chemist), where he completed a doctorate on steroid synthesis. After spending the war years in Oxford working on the structure of penicillin (he later helped write The Chemistry of Penicillin, which appeared in 1949), he joined the staff of the Medical Research Council.

By 1951, Sir John could synthesize the group of compounds known as nonaromatic steroids, which include sterols such as cholesterol. In that same year, American chemist Robert Woodward had successfully synthesized cholesterol but Cornforth was interested in how the molecule is actually synthesized in the cell. In 1975, he shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Vladimir Prelog for his work on combining chemical compounds to duplicate substances found in nature, and for his researches into stereochemistry (the study of the arrangement of atoms in molecules). Cornforth went on to synthesize alkenes, oxazoles, and the plant hormone abscisic acid.

In 1962 Cornforth became the director of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology in Kent. In 1975 he accepted the post of Royal Society Research Professor at Sussex University, where he served until 1982.

The Rita and John Cornforth Award (named for Sir John and his late wife) was established in 2008 to recognise scientists working in collaborative research teams with both chemistry and the life sciences.

Sir John Cornforth is a member of the Royal Society and is still active in chemistry research at the University of Sussex.

Career highlights

1953: Corday-Morgan medal
1969: American Chemical Society Ernest Guenther award
1975: Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1975: Australian of the Year (with Major General Alan Stretton)
1976: Royal Medal
1977: Knighted
1982: Copley Medal

More by and about John Cornforth

Vega Science Trust, Interview with John Cornforth (video)
Nobel Prize citation, 1975
Vega Science Trust, John Cornforth talks about his work in steroid synthesis
Cosmos Magazine, ‘Master of the Molecules, September 2006
Biography on
How Stuff Works, John Cornforth
Interview for the National Library of Australia’s Australians of the Year Oral History Project


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