Professor Sir John Cornforth: Chemist who overcame profound deafness to win the Nobel Prize for his work on enzymes and cholesterol

One of the attractions of science, he once said, was the chance it offered to learn from mistakes

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The Independent Online

John Cornforth was one of the foremost experts on the way living creatures create important chemical compounds. He overcame profound deafness to win the 1975 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Cornforth, then at Sussex University, shared the Prize with Vladimir Prelog, then of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, for work that essentially describes the roles of enzymes and the three-dimensional structure of molecules in the creation of compounds important to life. Their work helped show how properties of key molecules depend not only on the atoms that make them up, but also on the shapes in which the atoms are arranged.

In particular, Cornforth and Prelog were known for their work in delineating the intricate process of biosynthesis by which cholesterol is built up in living organisms. Cholesterol, which is carried in the bloodstream, is regarded as one of the keys to the development of heart disease. The prize was awarded to Cornforth “for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions.”

In succeeding at the highest levels of science, although deaf, Cornforth could deploy significant assets. A man of powerful intelligence, he consumed books and papers, wrote assiduously and could read lips — at least of people he knew. Those who knew him recalled that in communicating with him, it was necessary to face him while speaking.

Major contributions to his work came from his wife, a doctor of chemistry. She was, he said, more adept than he in the experiments vital to his work, and she helped him communicate.

The two met while both were chemistry students at the University of Sydney. Rita Harradence had a piece of laboratory glassware that had broken; John Cornforth had taught himself glass blowing, and his talents were recommended to her. Both won scholarships for further study at Oxford, and it was there a lifelong association began. Each worked at Oxford on steroid synthesis, each earning a doctorate.

John Warcup Cornforth was born in Sydney in 1917. His father was an Oxford-educated teacher of classics while his mother had been a nurse. Signs of deafness began to appear when he was a boy, and he had lost his hearing entirely by the time he was 20. He had developed an interest in science, chemistry in particular, in which he thought he could achieve results through reading and doing experiments.

With much of the chemical literature of his time published in German, he taught himself how to read it. Early in life he learned to distrust what he read about science, unless it came directly from scientists. He took pleasure from an early age in finding things out for himself. He would compare what textbooks said to be true with what experiments showed to be true. “I don’t believe a word I ever read in any textbook,” he said. “I began to see science as a continuous process of discovery and correction and myself as a part of this process.” Among the attractions of science, he said, was the chance it offered “to learn from mistakes.”

As a boy, Cornforth’s introduction to science came through astronomy and observing the stars in the clear Australian night. But rather than merely observe what could not be changed, he found himself drawn to chemistry and its opportunity for causing change.

In part, this interest was demonstrated by the laboratory he built at home as a teenager. Part of what drew him to chemistry, he said, was its sensory allure — “the beauties of crystals and distilled liquids, the colours of dyes and smells, both good and bad.”

During the Second World War he worked on penicillin, returning afterwards to his earlier interest in synthesising steroids. He and Robert Robinson, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, were credited with carrying out the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids in 1951, at the same time as the American scientist Robert Burns Woodward (another future Nobel laureate). Cornforth retired as a professor at the University of Sussex in 1982.

He had a nickname, Kappa, which stemmed from the Greek letter Kappa, which carries the same sound as the first letter of his last name. The letter was etched on his prized laboratory flasks to prevent them from wandering off.

As well as the Nobel, his honours included the Copley Medal, which was bestowed by the Royal Society in 1776 on the explorer Captain Cook, and Cornforth recognised in himself and his fellows the venturer into the unknown, where, as he once said, they laboured under the discipline of reality. For the scientist, he said, truth was less frequently the dazzle of a new world than it was “the uncharted rock that sinks his ship in the dark.”

John Warcup Cornforth, chemist: born Sydney 7 September 1917: CBE 1972, Kt 1977; Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1975; married 1941 Rita Harradence (three children); died 14 December 2013.

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