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Nobel Prize Winner John Cornforth Dies

Obituary: Cornforth’s work on stereochemistry of enzymatic reactions influenced generations of chemists

by Lisa Wilson
December 20, 2013

Sir John W. Cornforth, an Australian chemist who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975 for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions, has died. He was 96.

In a career that spanned some 75 years, Cornforth inspired generations of chemists with his strategies for using hydrogen isotopic substitution to trace the steps of enzymatic reactions. His Nobel Prize-winning work involved using such methods to show how nature assembles acetic acid molecules into cholesterol.

Judith Klinman, an emeritus chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, recalls Cornforth as a kind and gentle man whose work had a profound influence on her. As a postdoctoral researcher in the late 1960s, she says, she and her colleagues used Cornforth’s methodologies to study the stereochemistries of the interconversion of acetate with citrate, using three different enzymes.

“It was the thrill of these early experiments that hooked me on a career studying the chemistry of enzymes,” she says.

Cornforth’s early work focused on penicillin and its purification. He and his colleagues achieved the first total synthesis of nonaromatic steroids in 1951.

“Cornforth was one of the mid-20th century giants of organic chemistry,” along with Nobel Laureates Robert Burns Woodward and Sir Robert Robinson, says William Jorgensen, chemistry professor at Yale, who uses computational methods to study enzymes and drug design.

“Their successes in the days before NMR required remarkable insight, dedication, and perseverance,” Jorgensen adds.

Cornforth was born in Sydney, Australia, and began studying chemistry at the University of Sydney at age 16. His story is also remarkable for the fact that the ear disorder otosclerosis left him deaf at an early age. Chemistry, and the accompanying laboratory work, offered a career where “deafness might not be an insuperable handicap,” he later wrote.

He met his future wife, Rita, at the University of Sydney, while they were both chemistry students. They both completed their Ph.D.s at the University of Oxford, and were lifelong collaborators, sharing authorship on 41 papers. They had three children together. Rita Cornforth passed away on Nov. 6, 2012, at age 97.

Cornforth eventually became professor at the University of Sussex in 1975, where he stayed throughout his career, maintaining a laboratory until he was almost 90 years old. He shared the 1975 Nobel Prize with chemist Vladimir Prelog, who died in 1998.



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