John Warcup Cornforth was awarded one of the two 1975 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions.
The other prize went to Vladimir Prelog (Bosnia/Switzerland, 1906–98) for his work on the stereochemistry of organic molecules and reactions. Stereochemistry is a question of geometry in three dimensions; the prizeawarded work concerns biological reactions, where a group of atoms takes the place of one hydrogen atom among two or three, which may appear to be equivalent. The problem is to decide which of the hydrogen atoms is replaced and what effect this has on nearby groups. The process is led by a catalysing enzyme, without which chaos would break out in the biological system. Cornforth took the ingenious step of ‘marking’ the atoms with hydrogen’s three isotopes and noting their differing reaction speeds (the lightest reacts the quickest).
He was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1917, the second of four children. At the age of ten, he began to go deaf from otosclerosis, but he managed to get through life at Sydney Boys’ High School before the hearing loss became total. He entered Sydney University at the age of 16, studying organic chemistry, and despite being unable to hear lectures he graduated in 1937 with honours and a University medal. After a year of post-graduate research he won an 1851 Exhibition scholarship to Oxford, UK, working under Robert Robinson. Only two such scholarships were awarded each year, and the other went to Rita Harradence, also of Sydney and an organic chemist. Such fates are not to be ignored, and the couple married in 1941. They are constant professional colleagues and have three children and several grandchildren.
After completing their PhD work on steroid synthesis, the pair performed war work on penicillin, and Cornforth helped to write The Chemistry of Penicillin (1949). After the war he joined the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council in London, where he worked on the synthesis of sterols. He completed the first total synthesis of non-aro- matic steroids in 1951, around the same time as American Robert Woodward made the same discovery. Cornforth expanded his work in collaboration with others, in particular working on cholesterol with George Popják. In 1962 the duo left the MRC and became codirectors of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology.
It was at Milstead that Cornforth developed his study of the stereochemistry of enzymic reaction. He worked initially with Popják, who left for UCLA in 1968. In 1975, Cornforth left to become Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Sussex, where he remains active in the field. He has received several awards for his work, was named
Australian of the Year in 1975 and was knighted in 1977.
This text of the Nobel Laureate was taken from the book: "NOBELS. Nobel Laureates photographed by Peter Badge" (WILEY-VCH, 2008).