Sir Hans Kornberg obituary

Biochemist who built on the work of Hans Krebs to make key discoveries concerning metabolic cycles

Hans Kornberg became a biochemist just at the point, in the mid-20th century, when methods became available to explore how organisms convert food and oxygen into energy and tissue – the combustion engine of life. He was one of the pioneers who identified key participants in such metabolic reactions and measured their effects, knowledge that is fundamental to all of biology.

Kornberg, who has died aged 91, was a brilliant bench scientist and never happier than when solving problems in his lab. Yet his genial personality and commitment to the wider scientific community ensured he was recruited to lead a succession of educational and scientific bodies, where he was able to foster further generations of researchers.

He greeted every new honour and appointment with mild incredulity: if science were a cathedral with few architects and many workers, he wrote, “I have certainly never regarded myself as anything other than a hod carrier on that construction site.”

Kornberg’s mentor, the émigré biochemist Hans Krebs, made the Nobel-prizewinning discovery in 1937 of a metabolic cycle within living cells that bears his name. In turn, Kornberg used radioactive labelling, then a novel approach, to trace the sources of carbon in intermediates in the Krebs cycle.

By this means he discovered an associated cycle of biochemical reactions that operates in plants and microbes to enable them to exploit different carbon sources, and showed that this cycle could account for the conversion of fats to carbohydrates in plant products such as castor oil beans.

The same line of research elucidated mechanisms that keep the intermediate products of the Krebs cycle replenished when they are deployed elsewhere as precursors of other cellular components. With a love of the classical, derived from his grammar school education, he called these “anaplerotic” reactions, from the Greek “to fill up”: anaplerosis is a widely relevant concept in biochemistry.

For the rest of his career Kornberg continued to study metabolic cycles in laboratory micro-organisms, adopting the techniques of molecular genetics to tease out the interactions of the enzymes that catalyse the various stages. Later he used the same approach to study the membrane proteins that transport molecules of sugars such as fructose from the environment into the cell to begin the process of metabolism.

He was born in Herford, Germany, the elder son of Margarete (nee Silberbach) and Max Kornberg. In 1939 he came to the UK as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and was brought up by his uncle in Yorkshire. Both his parents died in the Holocaust. On leaving Queen Elizabeth grammar school in Wakefield in 1945 at the age of 17, Hans took a job as a technician in the laboratory of Krebs, biochemistry professor at Sheffield University.

Krebs had also fled nazism, and he became a father figure to Kornberg as well as a scientific mentor. He insisted Kornberg study maths and chemistry as well as washing bottles, and after a year helped him get a scholarship to take a chemistry degree. He then recommended him to a colleague as a PhD student, so Kornberg could gain experience in another branch of biochemistry.

After a two-year fellowship at Yale and the Public Health Research Institute of New York in the US, Kornberg rejoined Krebs, who had won a Nobel prize and moved to Oxford. They jointly published a book, Energy Transformations in Living Matter (1957), and Kornberg made his most significant discoveries during this period. He met Monica King in Oxford: they married in 1956, and had four children.

Thereafter Kornberg was on a sure track to becoming one of the great and the good. After a happy and productive period as professor of biochemistry at Leicester University (1960-75), he was invited to become Sir William Dunn professor of biochemistry at Cambridge University. He initially declined, but accepted after the existing laboratory building burned down so that he was spared from working in buildings “whose grandeur was not matched by their utility”. From 1982 until 1995 he was also a popular master of Christ’s College.

He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1965, knighted in 1978, and received numerous awards and honorary degrees. He did more than his fair share of scientific public service, chairing the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification and serving as a governor of the Wellcome Trust, among numerous other committee posts and trusteeships.

He was obliged to retire from his Cambridge posts at the age of 67, but immediately accepted an invitation to become professor of biology at Boston University in Massachusetts, where he continued to teach and research for the rest of his life.

He was a kind and humorous man with an inexhaustible fund of witty anecdotes, puns and old music-hall jokes: he told an interviewer that at Sheffield he had studied alongside “bottle-scarred veterans”. Despite the traumas of his childhood, he was irrepressibly optimistic: asked to pick the highlights of his career, he said: “I’ve been singularly lucky – it’s been a case of butter side up all the way along.”

Monica died in 1989, during his appointment as master of Christ’s College. Two years later he married Donna Haber: theirs was the first Jewish wedding to take place in the college. He is survived by Donna and by the two daughters, Julia and Rachel, and twin sons, Jonathan and Simon, from his first marriage.

• Hans Leo Kornberg, biochemist, born 14 January 1928; died 16 December 2019

Contributor

Georgina Ferry

The GuardianTramp

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