John Warcup (Kappa) Cornforth FRS (1917-2013) and Rita Cornforth (1915-2012)
John Cornforth was born on 7 September 1917 in Sydney, Australia. He attended Sydney High School and taught himself the skill of glass blowing, after seeing a demonstration at the University of Sydney. He saved up pocket money and bus fares to buy glass, and constructed his own bellows in his mother’s laundry. He did not worry about fire risk, thinking that his mother’s linen could be used to smother any flames. “It was a trial for her but she never murmured,” he recalled. It meant that in later life Cornforth could quickly produce his own glass apparatus.
During his teens John Cornforth gradually became profoundly deaf due to otosclerosis. He studied chemistry at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1937 with first-class honours. In 1939 he was awarded one of two 1851 Exhibition scholarships to study at Oxford with the renowned chemist Robert Robinson. The other winner of the scholarship that year was Rita Harradence, also an organic chemist, whom Cornforth knew already. They married in 1941 and worked closely together, with Rita acting as John’s ‘ears’. He could lip-read and manage one-to-one conversations but felt lost at group meetings without Rita by his side. He said later:
Throughout my scientific career my wife has been my most constant collaborator. Her experimental skill made major contributions to the work; she has eased for me beyond measure the difficulties of communication that accompany deafness; her encouragement and fortitude have been my strongest supports.
The Cornforths moved to NIMR in 1946. They lived in a house close to the Institute and were frequent visitors to the Holly Bush pub. In 1954 Cornforth had seriously considered returning to Australia to work in a proposed new research institute in Melbourne but eventually decided against it, much to Harington’s relief.
In 1962 Cornforth left NIMR to become joint director, with George Popják, of the Shell Research Milstead Laboratory at Sittingbourne (nick-named Popcorn). This lab was created by Shell at the urging of Robert Robinson, to foster work at the interface of chemistry and biology. In 1975 Cornforth moved to the University of Sussex as Royal Society Research Professor in the Department of Applied Science, retiring in 1982.
John Cornforth received many awards throughout his career, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1953 and receiving the Royal Society’s Royal Medal (1976) and Copley Medal (1982), as well as the 1975 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions, shared with Professor V. Prelog. He was made a Knight Bachelor in 1977.