Interview with Sir Hans Kornberg

Sir Hans Kornberg outside the Interval

We had the privilege of interviewing Sir Hans Kornberg on Friday 21st June, the day before the Reunion Luncheon at Firth Court for the classes of 1953 and 1963 where he was guest speaker. A world-renowned biochemist, Sir Hans' scientific research has led to numerous awards and distinctions, including a knighthood in 1978 and 12 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, including an Hon DSc from Sheffield in 1979.

Hans Kornberg emigrated to England at the age of 11, as a refugee from Nazi Germany. He was educated at the University of Sheffield, where he graduated with a B.Sc. in Chemistry in 1949 and Ph.D. in 1953. So before the big reunion, we wanted to ask him about his memories of his time at The University of Sheffield.

How did your involvement with The University of Sheffield start?

I came to England in Jan 1939, my uncle brought me over from Germany and took me to Yorkshire. I attended Wakefield Grammar School where I emerged clutching my High School certificate and thinking, what am I going to do now? My cousin was working at the University of Sheffield as a secretary in the Biochemistry Department and told me lots of stories about life in the Department and drew my attention to an advertisement for a Junior Technician, working with Professor Sir Hans Krebs. I remember thinking, what have I got to lose? So I applied for the job, got it and on the 3rd Sep 1945 I mounted the steps of Western Bank for the first time and started my association with the University of Sheffield…some 68 years ago.

How did you go from your first job to being a student at the University?

Well I really enjoyed the job and working with Sir Hans, so much so that by the end of the first year of working there I was sold…I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Professor Krebs insisted I don’t just sit there washing bottles but that I actually learnt what I was doing and in order to be able to understand it, he made me sit in the first year Chemistry and first year Maths courses at the University whilst I was a Technician. When the courses finished, Krebs said ‘Don’t come into work next week, I’ve put your name down for a scholarship’, and very fortunately I was successful and received an Edgar Allen Scholarship which gave me enough money to be able to be a student, so I took a degree in Chemistry.

Did you always want to be a scientist?

Once I’d tasted it, I was sold but I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I had really encountered science. Remember, I was at school during WW2 and before I went to Wakefield Grammar School in 1943, I was taught by people who were superannuated teachers or they had failed medical exams…no one really knew anything. So I couldn’t really experience chemistry until I fell under the spell of a chemistry master at Wakefield - Mr Gibbling. He really fired me up and said if I was willing to work hard, he would take me to a High School Certificate within two years…and he did. He appointed me one of his lab assistants too so I learnt how to make up solutions and I thought, this is great, this is what I want to do.

What particular part of science did you enjoy? What in particular fascinated you about science over any other subject?

It was the realisation, after 1930, that you could apply the laws, methods and procedures of physics and chemistry to understand the processes in living matter and mainly, one could describe the way that food materials were broken down to little fragments, which were then either burnt to provide energy or reassembled so that one cell became two cells so that it was now possible to describe in discreet steps which could be isolated and studied. Much of that was due to the pioneering work of Professor Krebs who received a Nobel prize some years later. We could actually try and understand what happened inside the cell as opposed to the late 1800s where, if we liken living matter to people living in a house, we could merely count who goes into the house and examine the contents of the dustbin and only guess what happened inside the house. After that time we could now actually see what was going on inside the house and study it and that was something that I wanted to do and have done, in fact, for many years.

What are your fondest memories of the University?

Professionally speaking, my fondest memories were working in the Biochemistry Department on the first floor of the old building and then moving into the new labs which had originally been designed to house a gent’s lavatory, on the corner of Winter Street. I remember my Professor asking whether I thought it odd to be working in a building intended to be a gents, and I said well at least if my experiments work, I will emerge flushed with success!

Sir Hans Kornberg with Student President outside Firth CourtOn a social level, I would say first and foremost though, my fondest memories are of living in Crewe Hall which was a men’s hall of residence at that time and of the many of the friends I made there. I also really enjoyed being involved with the Students’ Union. It was a small affair back then but intensely social. I was Secretary of the Executive Committee for one year and I was also editor of Darts and Twikker, for a year. It was great fun and I enjoyed it enormously. I remember very clearly my one appearance at the Palace Theatre in Attercliffe where I actually managed, with colleagues, to sell Twikker magazine to the audience. The manager insisted he would only allow me to do so if I agreed to be the straight man in the opening sketch, which apparently was traditional so I gulped and said, if it’s just one line, I will do it. So the comedian comes on stage and says “tha knows, my family is in iron and steel”, I said “your family is in iron and steel?”, he replied “aye, me mother irons and me father steals”. It brought the house down…drama critics wept at the memory of my performance I’m sure!

Are you are still in contact with people from your undergraduate days?

Indeed I am. The extraordinary thing to remember is that when I was a student in 1946, I was 18 years old but many of the other people had just come back from War time services in the armed forces. So my closest friends were a tank commander in the desert, someone who had been on an arctic convoy in the Navy, and two RAF Pilots (one of whom later became my brother in law). So there was a very sharp contrast, between people like me, who were wet behind the ears and had never done anything more adventurous than go to a boy scout camp, to people who were battle scarred veterans or as it turned out later, bottle scarred veterans.

We all moulded together seamlessly though. Every night, sunshine permitting, after dinner in Halls we would stroll around the Botanic Gardens and then go up to the pub at Crookes junction – it was a wonderful time.

You sound like you had a good relationship with Professor Hans Krebs?

Sir Hans Krebs was a wonderful guy, He wasn’t just a Professor, he was In loco parentis to me. He made me do things I would not have done in order to ensure I reached my potential, such as taking my PhD where I got the chance to learn from his colleague, Dr. R.E Davies, who was exceptionally bright and introduced me to techniques and a way of thinking that I would never have known otherwise.

I remember he used to come down to the Chemistry labs in my undergrad days to demonstrate the uses of the Warburg Manometer. I had spent a year as a Technician with him previous to this so at that point I could make this instrument sing and dance, so I decided to stay in the Union and wait until I thought he had got so far through his spiel and I would then appear, hastily do the experiment and then disappear again. He stood this for about two sessions and then he came up to me and said, “Hans, I notice you’re always late for my practicals?”, I said “Yes Sir, but I try to make up for it by leaving early”, he said, “well that’s alright then”walked away and then he stopped and said, “what did you just say?” (and laughs).

Who would you say has been the biggest influence in your career?

Hans Krebs without a doubt. I had the unique privilege of being his most Junior Technician in 1945 and 35 years later, in St Mary’s church in Oxford, giving his obituary address. He has been a constant theme in my life and in fact when in 1961 I was appointed to the Chair at Leicester, I was there for 15 years, he would regularly telephone me and we would have a chat and discuss things. He would always call me on a Sunday because it was cheapest!

What has been the highlight of your career?

Well, there are many. I’ve been singularly lucky- it’s been a case of butter side up all the way along. The fact I got the scholarship at the University of Sheffield, and then a Research Fellowship and later a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship which allowed me to study in the States for two years and pick up techniques which I would never have learnt in this country, which I then applied here, and which enabled me to discover the counter part of the Krebs cycle. I discovered how fat is broken down and converted to carbohydrate but I would never have done this without the succession of happy accidents and being in the right place at the right time. It’s serendipity.

If you could sum up the University of Sheffield in 3 words, what would they be?

I would say, concerned, compassionate and inspired teaching. When I think of my wrestling with the ins and outs of organic chemistry, Professor T.S Stevens, was just wonderful. He made sure that you not only remember what’s going on but that you understand it and you understand the reason behind it, he was terrific. And similarly, R.C Lawrence was also a terrific teacher.

As an alumnus of the university, do you think it’s important for the University to keep in touch with its former students?

Well of course, absolutely. The University is a custodian - it has two main functions. One is to advance learning through its own scholarly researchers, and the second is to pass on the fruits of that learning to the next generation. So there is an obvious requirement for the University to ensure the contact between the past and to look to the future and that is precisely what the alumni association does. Indeed the motto of the university, "Disce, Doce", says exactly that, learn and teach.

Quick Fire Round

What’s your favourite film?
My favourite film is Ninotschka, it’s an old black and white film, the one where Greta Garbo laughs for the first time.

If you were stranded on a desert island, which 3 things would you take with you?
The first thing would be the complete works of J.S Bach, the second thing I would take is Guilbert’s Guide to practical boat building and finally, probably the works of Jane Austen.

If you could only eat one meal, what would it be?
Breakfast - I would have smoked salmon and cream cheese, scrambled eggs, 7 grain bread, orange juice and lots of black coffee…It’s a well known biological fact that life cannot start before coffee!

Who would be your dream dinner party guest?
My wife. In fact, I was asked if I believed in re-incarnation and if so how would I like to come back. I said I would like to come back as my wife’s second husband!

What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished reading a good book called ‘Defending Jacob’ by a man called Landel.

Where is your favourite holiday destination?
I think my favourite one is the island of Ischia which is next door to Capri in the bay of Naples but also my wife and I have been twice now to the Caribbean and that we also like very much, particularly in winter. That reminds me of another sketch, a comedian says “I recently took my wife to the Caribean” “Jamaica?” “No she went of her own accord!”

Which comedians make you laugh?
Very few actually! Steven Colbert, he’s not a comedian but a TV commentator, he has a show every night on American TV and we compulsively watch that every night. It’s brilliant.

And finally…what’s your favourite drink? Johnny Walker Black…that’s my aperitif. I also like wine, I used to be Chair of one of the wine committees in my Cambridge college (when questioned ‘red or white’, he simply answered ‘yes’)

Read more latest news stories.