Research Profile

Monday, 23 December 2013

Some personal memories of Professor Sir John Cornforth


I was deeply saddened to hear the news of the passing of a former colleague, Sir John Cornforth at 96. I first met, Sir John, known to all as Kappa in 1993 when I joined the faculty at the School of Chemistry and Molecular Sciences in Sussex. I thought I had seen the "great man" in a lab coat in the audience at my job interview, but not had a chance to meet him. And luckily he had not asked one of those deceptively simple questions!

However on one of several visits to organise the move of my lab, I met Kappa, in a lab coat standing beside a rotary evaporator with a large flask evaporating an impressive volume of solvent, from a column. He was working on his latest project. Although because he was deaf, communication was not straightforward - it was certainly worth it. Kappa was deeply insightful and very amusing. "Ah Professor Cornforth" I introduced myself " I also work in the lab" - I said proudly …he gave that characteristic smile and laugh and retorted "I play in the lab"…...

I did not get to know Kappa as well as many others, but we were colleagues over the ten years I was at Sussex. I recall him telling the story of his nickname. When working in labs, there is a tendency for glassware to go missing - in order to keep his, Kappa etched the greek letter …and so the name stuck..I never thought to ask whether it helped with retention of the glassware..

I also remember his enthusiasm for spending time with graduate students - allegedly playing tennis with them well into his 80's…I do recall an extraordinary set of lectures given in the upstairs  (MOLS) tea room - to the organic graduate students and staff. He covered a variety of material on stereochemistry and biosynthesis - for which he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1975 - sharing it with Prelog. But the talks were not self aggrandizing - quite the opposite - they showed his humility and enthusiasm for the subject. For anyone who had a chance to see those lectures, probably about 40 students and half a dozen young faculty members - it was a treat...I wished we'd had smartphones then…

I also remember Kappa's  great humour, especially his love of limericks - and his delight at recalling them at the dinner table - especially in the presence of visiting speakers....Kappa was also very generous. A keen walker on the Southdowns, he used to collect local fruit - and many of us would be recipients of great bags of quinces and other local delights… 

One of the proudest moments of my early academic career was a discussion on a stairwell one morning. I'd just had a paper published in Chemical Communications on radical cyclizations and Kappa and I bumped into one another. He mentioned the paper and after a few complimentary comments from him about the work he asked, smiling  "but where did the bromine go?" We went on to have a ten minute discussion about the mechanism I'd proposed - which was incomplete (and probably wrong)…The point was, Kappa had read and really thought about the work…As a young researcher that was quite something…

When Harry Kroto, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996, there was a wonderful moment by the pond where the whole school came together and Harry and Kappa shook hands…Harry was a great fan of Kappa - and fortuitously for us, created some films through the Vega Trust - so even though this was before the smart phone era - you can still see Kappa talking about his work. Go take a look!

Kappa Cornforth was a great scientist, intellect and enthusiast. A pioneer of enzyme mechanism, stereochemistry and much more - a true giant of modern organic chemistry. He will be much missed by friends, family and colleagues. 

It was a pleasure and privilege to have known him.

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