Mourning the loss of Australia's only Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, Sir John Warcup Cornforth

17 December 2013

The University of Sydney today acknowledged the passing of one of its most prestigious graduates, Australia's only Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Sir John Warcup Cornforth.

Professor Cornforth was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1975, the same year he was also named joint Australian of the Year. He was later knighted and awarded a Centenary of Federation medal for his contribution to society.

Vice-Chancellor of the University, Dr Michael Spence, extended his condolences to Professor Cornforth's family and acknowledged his lifetime of service to chemistry and academic life.

Professor Cornforth and his wife Rita will continue to be remembered at the University through the Rita and John Cornforth Medal, established in in 2011 to honour PhD graduates who have achieved academic excellence and enriched the diverse life of the University and broader community.

"It is some small recognition of the significant contribution they made to University life and their respective fields on a global scale," Dr Spence said.

Sir John Warcup 'Kappa' Cornforth AC CBE FRS (BSc '38 MSc '39 DSc '77) and his wife Lady Rita Cornforth (BSc '37 MSc '38) both completed postgraduate studies at the University of Sydney and were among the most outstanding students of their respective years.

They were both awarded postgraduate scholarships in 1938 to work at the University of Oxford, and moved there together. The Cornforths had a profound influence on the study of penicillin during the war. Rita collaborated with John on his enzyme work and was central to its success, particularly because of her experimental skills.

Sir John won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (with Vladimir Prelog) in 1975 for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions.

He was knighted in 1977 and awarded the Corday-Morgan Medal in 1953, the Royal Medal in 1976 and the Copley Medal in 1982.

He was a member of the Royal Society and was still very active in chemistry research at the University of Sussex until his death. Rita passed away in 2012.

Making his success even more remarkable, Sir John has been deaf since his teens, and Rita relayed speech to him by lip-reading throughout their life together.

Dr Spence said Professor Cornforth was an incredible Australian who represented the very best of a University of Sydney graduate.

"We are all grateful for Professor Cornforth's contribution to science and research on a global scale. Our sympathies to his loved ones during this sad time," he said.

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Kirsten Andrews, 9114 0748, 0413 777 404,