John Cornforth

Meet John Cornforth: A Master of Chemical Synthesis

John Cornforth

©The Godfrey Argent Studio

By Sarah Strassler

In order to develop new drugs and chemicals, we need to be able to design a molecule on paper and then bring it to life! This involves trying different recipes until the product is just right. However, unlike making a cake, the molecules can’t be seen or tasted. Scientists rely on creative methods to understand what is going on in their flasks and to detect the final product. The research of Sir John Cornforth was pivotal in helping us understand the three-dimensional arrangements, or stereochemistry, of atoms in a molecule which helps us predict how they’ll interact to make new ones. This allowed Cornforth to develop recipes for many important molecules, including cholesterol and penicillin!

Ostosclerosis left Cornforth fully deaf by the age of 16.

John Cornforth was born on September 17th, 1917 in Sydney, Australia. When Cornforth was 10 years old, he started to show the first signs of otosclerosis which is a condition where the bones in the middle ear become deformed. These bones eventually stop transmitting sound and the condition leads to deafness. As his hearing deteriorated, Cornforth became drawn to science and “the beauties of crystals and distilled liquids, the colours of dyes, and smells both good and bad.” This motivated him to develop his own home laboratory in his mother’s laundry room.

By the time Cornforth began college at the University of Sydney, he was completely deaf. Cornforth relied on primary literature to learn the material for his classes and even taught himself German to be able to understand a broader range of articles. He went on to earn his doctorate from Oxford University in 1941 where he was awarded one of only two scholarships. The other scholarship was awarded to Rita Harradance whom Cornforth later married, and who became his “ears” during scientific meetings.

Research on stereochemistry and enzyme synthesis earned Cornforth the Nobel Prize.

Cornforth had a knack for synthesizing difficult chemicals. As a graduate student, Cornforth became the first scientist to synthesize cholesterol, an important molecule needed to make hormones. When World War II broke out, Cornforth developed a method to make a vital precursor for the “miracle drug” penicillin.

Because Australian universities required that all scientists lecture, Cornforth remained in England. He worked as a staff member at the National Institute for Medical Research, and then later as a co-director of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology. Cornforth continued to pursue research which furthered our understanding of how chemicals interact and new synthesis techniques. This work earned him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1975 alongside corecipient Vladimir Prelog. Cornforth was knighted in 1977 and he received countless other awards throughout his lifetime from organizations such as the Royal Society and the American Chemical Society.

Cornforth published articles to share knowledge in an accessible way.

Throughout his career, Cornforth published hundreds of articles to share his findings with the scientific community. His research paved the way for the development of modern cholesterol-lowering drugs and laid the foundation for synthesis of countless chemicals utilized today.