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Cornforth, Sir John (Warcup)

oxford reactions research carbon

(1917– ) Australian organic chemist.

Trained in Sydney and Oxford, where he worked with , Cornforth had originally chosen to work in chemistry partly because from age ten he became deaf, which excluded many other possible careers. Despite not hearing any lectures he had a prize-winning student career, winning an 1851 Exhibition to Oxford: the only other such award was to Rita Harradence, another organic chemist from Sydney. They travelled to Oxford on the same ship, arriving in England just as war started. They married in 1941, and she became his principal co-worker for the next 30 years (and always his communicator with the hearing world; his deafness, due to otosclerosis, was total). The pair were part of the Oxford team, led by Robinson, who had worked during the Second World War on penicillin. After the war they worked at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, and in 1951 achieved (simultaneously with ) the first total synthesis of steroids. He was a leading member of the MRC group, which found by ingenious use of isotopically labelled carbon and hydrogen atoms, how the molecule of cholesterol is synthesized in the body. They showed that the C27 carbon skeleton (made up of three fused six-atom rings and one five-atom ring) is built up in a complex series of enzyme-regulated stages, entirely from two-carbon (acetyl) fragments. Cholesterol is a key compound in the steroid group (which includes sterols, vitamins D, bile acids, and hormones). It is essential in animal metabolism, although deposits of it in the arterial system are a major health hazard: only about 10% of body cholesterol is taken in with the diet, and 90% is synthesized in the liver.

From 1962 to 1975 Cornforth was with Shell Research, and thereafter he was Royal Society research professor at the University of Sussex. During this time his main work was on enzyme reactions. The idea of a lock-and-key relation between molecules in biochemical reactions goes back to, but its refinement to establish the details of molecular shape involved in enzyme reactions owes much to Cornforth. He shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1975 with V Prelog (1906–98) who had worked in related areas of stereochemistry.

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