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Sir John Warcup Cornforth (1917–2013)

by Harriet Veitch

John Cornforth was awarded a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1975 and is still the only Australian to take the Nobel in chemistry. That year he was also named as joint Australian of the Year. Later he was knighted and still later the recipient of a Centenary of Federation medal for his contribution to society.

John Warcup Cornforth was born on September 7, 1917 in Sydney, the second of four children of John Cornforth, a Classics teacher from England, and his Australian wife, Hilda (nee Eipper), a nurse, and grew up in Sydney and Armidale. At 10 he started to go deaf from a condition called otosclerosis, where the bones in the middle ear become deformed and stop transmitting sound. By 20 he was completely deaf, except for the ringing in his ears of tinnitus, a common side effect of the disease.

Luckily, at Sydney Boys High, a young teacher, Leonard Basser, influenced Cornforth in the direction of chemistry, which seemed to the young student to offer a career where his deafness might not be a handicap. And so it proved, he was accepted to the University of Sydney at 16 and because he couldn't hear the lectures he started reading textbooks, which in those days were mostly in German, so he taught himself German as well. He graduated in 1937 with a bachelor of science, first class honours and University Medal.

After some post-graduate work in Australia, Cornforth was awarded one of two 1851 Exhibition scholarships in 1939 to study at Oxford. In those days there was no facility to do a PhD in chemistry in Australia.

The other winner of the scholarship that year was Rita Harradence, who he had already met in the laboratory when she needed his help. Equipment was so hard to get in those days that Cornforth had taught himself glass-blowing so he could repair things, and Harradence asked him to fix a flask she had broken.

Expensive equipment was also the reason for Cornforth's lifelong nickname of "Kappa", because he used to engrave the Greek symbol on his glasswear to stop other students walking off with it.

Cornforth and Harradence arrived in Oxford in 1939, just as the war started, and after they had finished their doctoral work (on steroid synthesis) they became part of the group doing chemical studies of the new drug penicillin (the discovery of which earned the Australian Howard Florey a Nobel prize in 1945).

In 1949 Cornforth helped to write The Chemistry of Penicillin, the record of that work.

Meanwhile, in 1941 Cornforth and Harradence had married and she became his co-researcher and interpreter. They collaborated on 41 scientific papers and he always said that she was "much better at the bench than I am" and that she did most of the experimental work.

After the war Australia had few openings for research chemists who could not lecture at universities, so the Cornforths stayed in England and he went back to the synthesis of steroids, in collaboration with his PhD supervisor, Robert Robinson. In 1946 Cornforth joined the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council and worked at its National Institute. In 1951 his team was able to complete the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids.

At the Institute he met biological scientists and started work on collaborative projects with several of them. In particular, he shared an interest in cholesterol with the Hungarian scientist George Popjak. He and Popjak devised a complete carbon-by-carbon degradation of the nineteen-carbon ring structure of cholesterol and identified the arrangement of the acetic acid molecules from which the system is built, work that eventually led to Cornforth's Nobel prize.

In 1962 Cornforth and Popjak left the Medical Research Council and became co-directors of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology, set up by Shell Research Ltd. There they studied the stereochemistry of enzymic reactions by means of asymmetry artificially introduced by isotopic substitution, and Cornforth continued the work when Popjak left for the University of California.

Over the years, honours came along. Cornforth was elected to the Royal Society and awarded the Chemical Society's Corday Morgan medal in 1953. He also received the Flintoff medal in 1965. The American Chemical Society awarded him its Ernest Guenther award in 1968 and he took the Prix Roussel in 1972. He and Popjak were jointly awarded the Biochemical Society's Ciba medal in 1965, the Stouffer prize in 1967 and the Royal Society's Davy medal in 1968.

In 1975 Cornforth left Milstead to become Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Sussex. Then came the Nobel prize, which he shared with Bosnian chemist Vladimir Prelog for "their efforts to relate molecular structure to the properties of chemical compounds".

In an interview in 2006 he recalled the time, after his wife had told him the news that she had heard on the radio. "I think that's the day I remember with the most pleasure in my experimental life. "I was quite surprised. I had estimated my chances at about one in three. I knew that [Robert] Robinson had put me up for the prize.

"As for the ceremony, I couldn't hear a word of what was said. And so, as usual, I amused myself by looking around at the audience. It was in this sports stadium, an enormous place, because the town hall was being refurbished, but I could see, in the darkness of the auditorium, these flashes of bright light. They kept on like this, and I couldn't make out what they were. And finally I realised all the women were wearing their jewels, and that was what was causing the flashes of light. That was the thing I remember most of all from the ceremony."

Cornforth was knighted in 1977, then awarded the Copley medal by the Royal Society of London in 1982. He went on lecturing at the University of Sussex until he retired and also travelled around the world to give lectures. He last lectured in Australia in 1992 for the 75th anniversary of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. There he sympathised with modern students, saying that their study was more difficult than in his day.

"When Rita and I were learning our chemistry here, chemistry was not really very difficult. There was not really all that much to know. Now I am sorry for you people because there really is a lot to know."

A lot of it, it must be said, because of his original research.

John Cornforth is survived by his children Brenda, John and Philippa, grandchildren Catherine and Andrew, four great-grandchildren and nine nieces and nephews. Rita died in 2012.

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Citation details

Harriet Veitch, 'Cornforth, Sir John Warcup (1917–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 September, 1917
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


14 December, 2013 (aged 96)

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