Sir Hans Leo Kornberg

Category: All Harkness Stories /  Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths /  Up to 1959 / 

Sir Hans Leo Kornberg (CFF 1953-55) FRS arrived in Britain in 1939, aged 11, a refugee from Nazi Germany. After completing a PhD (Biochemistry) at the University of Sheffield, his Commonwealth Fund Fellowship took him to Yale and the Public Health Research Institute, NY,  studying enzymology. At Sheffield, Kornberg made his first of many discoveries; using radioactive carbon isotopes he discovered the breakdown of urea in the gut was by bacterial action. He funded himself as a lab tech and cook, the latter relevant to the fellowship requirement to write on some aspect of American life during 3 month’s travel. Kornberg chose American regional cooking, and ate his way across 30 states, recalling “It was one of the most enjoyable periods of my life”. He returned to Oxford to work with his mentor, who had spotted talent in the 17 yr old lab technician, Nobel prize winner Sir Hans Krebs. As Professor of Biochemistry at Leicester and then Cambridge, he contributed considerably to the rapid development of the science of biochemistry, elected the first president of the Biochemical Society in 1990. He chaired the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution; the Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification; the Science Board of the Science Research council and was Governor of the Welcome Trust.  As president of the British Academy of Science he campaigned to reverse the government’s cuts to scientific research. On retiring from Cambridge, 1995, he moved to the University of Boston, USA.  Elected FRS in 1965, Kornberg was knighted in 1978.