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Sir John Warcup Cornforth

Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1975 (with Vladimir Prelog)

"for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions"

John Warcup Cornforth was born on 7 September 1917, in Sydney. His father was a school teacher and mother was a nurse. At a very young age Cornforth showed signs of deafness because of a progressive disease, otosclerosis. By the age of 20 he became completely deaf.

Cornforth entered into science through astronomy but later due to the influence of his chemistry teacher he found chemistry very interesting. Since he was 14, he had constructed a small lab at his home and spent his spare time experimenting with chemical reactions. He began studying at the University of Sydney at the age of 16, where he developed a curiosity for organic chemistry. In 1937 He graduated with first-class honours and a university medal. After a year of postgraduate studies, he won the 1851 Exhibition scholarship and went to Oxford to study under Robert Robinson. One of the other recipients of the same scholarship was Rita Harradence from Sydney, an organic chemist. Later in 1941, Cornforth and Harradence were married. Rita was his most constant collaborator and strongest supporter. She helped him to overcome his difficulties of communication. After completing their PhDs on steroid synthesis the pair became part of the chemical effort on penicillin, the major project in Robinson’s laboratory during the war. After the war Cornforth again turned his interest to the synthesis of sterols. Cornforth and Robinson completed the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids in 1951.

During his days at the National Institute for Medical Research, Cornforth formed collaborative projects with many biological scientists. One of them was George Popjak and together they studied cholesterol synthesis. In 1962 they left and joined the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology as co-directors. The project at Milstead was the study of the stereochemistry of enzymic reaction by means of asymmetry artificially introduced by isotopic substitution. This work continued even after 1968. In 1975 Cornforth took a position as Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Sussex. His work at Milstead won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1975. Among his many other awards are the Australian of the Year (1977), British Knighthood (1977) and the Royal Society’s Copley Medal (1982).

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