Sir John Cornforth changed the lives of millions with his work into biological chemistry

If it wasn’t for the work of Sir John Cornforth, his wife Rita Harradence and an organic chemist called Vladimir Prelog, we may not have known just how dangerous cholesterol could be. 

Sir John Cornforth changed the lives of millions with his work into biological chemistry

The trio was fundamental in the advancement of research into chemical reactions and in particular the study of the 3D structures of such reactions, which Cornforth and Prelog later went on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for in 1975. Today, on what would have been his 100th birthday, Google has honoured the work of Cornforth in its daily Google Doodle. 

The Doodle shows the letters of the word Google surrounded by various lab equipment, a cartoon of Cornforth’s face and a simplified version of his equation on a blackboard.

Sir John Cornforth 

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 The only Australian to have ever won the Nobel Prize, Cornforth, known as Kappa to his friends, was born on 7 September, 1917 in Sydney. A keen scientist from an early age, Cornforth was interested in chemistry as a child and trained as a glassblower. He later went on to study at the University of Sydney. At the age of 20, Cornforth went completely deaf following years of gradually losing his hearing. 

As he couldn’t hear his university lectures, Cornforth “devoured chemistry textbooks on his own” and it was at university where he met fellow chemist Rita Harradence. As a Google explained, Harradence had asked Cornforth to fix a broken flask and they soon became partners, both professionally and romantically. In 1939, the pair won scholarships to study at Oxford and married two years later. The scholarships were 1851 Exhibition scholarships to work at Oxford with Sir Robert Robertson and the couple took the only two places available. Together they wrote more than 40 scientific papers.  

It was at Oxford that Conforth began working on the advancement of penicillin before moving into stereochemistry, the study of the three-dimensional structure of chemical reactions, particularly those which occur in the human body and biological cells.

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In 1975, while working as a professor at the University of Sussex, Cornforth was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for this work which he shared with co-laureate Prelog for the study of enzymes that change organic compounds. Their work opened the door to many discoveries, including the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs. Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in all cells of the body. It’s used to digest food, but too much can increase your risk of coronary heart disease. 

Enzymes are substances that are active in biochemical processes. During this work, Cornforth studied the structure and transformation of these processes, including how an enzyme replaces a certain hydrogen atom in a reacting molecule and what consequences this has. To study this, from the mid-1950s he used different isotopes of hydrogen – hydrogen atoms with different weights that also react at different speeds. 

In a press release announcing Cornforth’s win in 1975, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote: “Cornforth’s work…is difficult to explain to the layman as it is a question of geometry in three dimensions; it is concerned with the delicate mechanism of important reactions in biological systems, where a group of atoms takes the place of a certain hydrogen atom among two or three, which may appear to be equivalent…”

In his letter to the academy, following the Nobel Prize announcement, Cornforth added: “Throughout my scientific career my wife has been my most constant collaborator. Her experimental skill made major contributions to the work; she has eased for me beyond measure the difficulties of communication that accompany deafness; her encouragement and fortitude have been my strongest supports.”

Cornforth worked at the university until he was almost 90 years old and he died in December 2013, a year after his wife. Rita was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sussex, and the Australian National University set up the Rita Cornforth Fellowships for female researchers in chemistry in 1996.

Images: Google/University of Sussex

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