John W. Cornforth Jr., Nobel laureate in chemistry, dies at 96

Posted Dec. 19, 2013, at 3:43 p.m.

John W. Cornforth Jr., whose profound deafness did not keep him from winning a Nobel Prize in science and becoming one of the great experts on the way living creatures create important chemical compounds, died Dec. 14 at the age of 96.

His death was reported by newspapers in his native Australia, but no details were given.

The 1975 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Cornforth, then of the University of Sussex in England, and 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 depended not only on the atoms that make them up, but also on the shapes in which those atoms were 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.

Formally, the prize was awarded to him “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. In addition, major contributions to his work came from his wife, herself the holder of a doctorate in chemistry.

She was, he said, more adept than he in the experiments vital to his work, and she helped him communicate.

As the story goes, the two first 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.

It turned out that both won scholarships for advanced study at the University of Oxford in England, and it was there, according to a biographical sketch he wrote, that an association began that lasted their entire lives. Each worked at Oxford on steroid synthesis, and each earned a doctorate.

They married in 1941 and had three children, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. She died in 2012.

John Warcup Cornforth Jr. was born in Sydney on Sept. 7, 1917. His father was an Oxford-educated teacher of classics. His mother had been a nurse.

Signs of deafness began to appear when he was a boy, and he lost his hearing entirely by the time he was 20. In the meantime, he had developed an interest in science, chemistry in particular, in which he thought he could achieve through reading and performing experiments.

With much of the chemical literature of his time published in German, he taught himself how to read it, with diligence and a dictionary. Early in life he learned to distrust what he read about science, unless it came directly from scientists.

According to an account published in Cosmos magazine, 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 told Cosmos. “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 was quoted as saying, was the chance it offered “to learn from mistakes.”

As a boy, Cornforth’s introduction to science came through astronomy and observing the stars that shone 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 told Cosmos, was its sensory allure — “the beauties of crystals and distilled liquids, the colours of dyes and smells, both good and bad.”

During World War II, he worked on penicillin. After the war, he returned to his earlier interest in synthesizing steroids. He and Robert Robinson, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, were credited with carrying out in 1951, at the same time as American scientist Robert Burns Woodward (a future Nobel laureate in chemistry), the first total synthesis of the non-aromatic steroids.

He retired as a professor at the University of Sussex in 1982.

He was an heir to a distinguished scientific tradition that began long before the first Nobels were awarded. His honors included the Copley Medal, bestowed by Britain’s Royal Society in 1776 on Captain James Cook, the explorer. Cook’s medal was for preventing scurvy in his crew during a long voyage to the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean.

In addition to their honors, scientists are known among their fellows for their idiosyncrasies. Cornforth had a nickname, Kappa. It 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.

Perhaps no less than Cook, Cornforth recognized in himself and his fellows the venturer into the unknown, where, as he once said, they labored 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.”

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