18 December 2019

In memory of Professor Sir Hans Kornberg (1928-2019)

The University regrets to report the death of Professor Sir Hans Kornberg FRS, one of our most distinguished Chemistry and Biochemistry alumni.

Sir Hans Kornberg

Sir Hans (BSc Chemistry 1949, PhD Biochemistry 1953, Honorary DSc 1979) was a noted and respected biochemist, focussing on the molecular basis of metabolic processes that enable micro-organisms to utilize simple compounds for energy and growth.

He was born in Germany, but shortly before the outbreak of WWII, and due to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, he emigrated to England at the age of eleven to live with his uncle in Yorkshire. After completing school in Wakefield, a family member at the University of Sheffield suggested he apply for a position there.

Initially he worked as a lab technician with Professor Sir Hans Krebs (the 1953 Nobel Prize winner), who encouraged him to study chemistry, and helped Sir Hans to get a scholarship at the University, guiding him along the path to his future career. He was a very active student serving as Secretary of the Students’ Union, and taking part in Twikker fundraising activities.

Sir Hans Kornberg and Students' Union President Abdi Suleiman
Sir Hans Kornberg and Students' Union President Abdi Suleiman in 2013

Following his undergraduate degree, Sir Hans undertook a PhD in biochemistry at the University, after which he worked and completed postdoctoral study at Yale, Berkeley and at the Public Health Research Institute of the City of New York, before returning to the UK to a post at Oxford University.

At Oxford, he reunited with Sir Hans Krebs. Together they published the first major publication on biological thermodynamics. From there Sir Hans was appointed Chair of Biochemistry at the University of Leicester, later taking the same role at the University of Cambridge, where he became Master of Christ’s College.

My first biochemistry lectures, as an undergraduate at Leicester University in 1972, were delivered by Hans Kornberg. Hans informed and charmed his students at the same time as writing complicated biochemical pathways on a blackboard, relating anecdotes and making an initially daunting subject easy to assimilate. My final year experimental project at Leicester was in the laboratory Peter Henderson shared with Hans. I thank Hans for his influence on my scientific career, which has been mainly at Sheffield, the University where Hans began his scientific career and where he prospered under the mentorship of Nobel Laureate Sir Hans Krebs.”

Professor Neil Hunter FRS

Krebs Professor in the Department of Molecular and Biotechnology

In 1965, Sir Hans was elected to become a Fellow of The Royal Society, and in 1978 he was knighted for services to science. He was also the recipient of the Colworth Medal of the Biochemical Society, the Otto Warburg Medal of the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the Leeuwenhoek Medal and Lecture. Sir Hans was also the recipient of 11 honorary degrees throughout his life, including one from his alma mater.

On retiring from Cambridge in 1995 Sir Hans returned to the US, becoming a Professor of Biology at Boston University, where he continued to research and teach well into his eighties. Sir Hans passed away in hospital in Boston on the evening of 16 December 2019.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Hans on many occasions. He had huge affection for the University of Sheffield, which enabled him to have a very distinguished career. He regularly came to alumni reunions and events, in both the UK and the USA. A natural raconteur, he was full of the most wonderful stories and anecdotes. We mourn the passing of a truly great man.”

Miles Stevenson

Director of Advancement