Research School of Chemistry, ANU
Research School of Chemistry, ANU
Rita Cornforth Fellowships
(from a letter from J.W. White, Dean, 5/2/1996)

The report of the Research School of Chemistry Review Committee (April 1995) recommended that the Research School of Chemistry should make specific efforts to increase the number of women in postdoctoral and staff positions (Recommendation 5).

The Report of the Insititute Review Committee (September 1995) recommended that the Institute of Advanced Studies should continue to seek outstanding women for senior appointments, especially where they are under represented (Recommendation 11)

The School accepted both these recommendations and in view of the limited availability of women at senior levels in the discipline of chemistry came to the conclusion that it would be appropriate to address the problem of gender balance by the creation of special appointments for women at the medium range (Research Fellow/Fellow Level B/C).

In September 1995 the School considered a policy paper on Gender Balance in the Institute of Advanced Studies and replied in the following terms under the heading "Senior Appointments for Women":

The long-term goal of increasing the number of women in more senior positions was seen as having the highest priority of the options contained in paper 1732A/1995. However, the availability of competitive candidates at different levels varies enormously across disciplines, and the School believes that there should be flexibility to enable each area to take appropriate action in the light of the field of potential women candidates. In addition, the School still has strong reservations about "women only" tenurable positions. It therefore advocates as a method to improve gender balance the creation on a continuing basis of up to three non-tenurable Level B/Level C positions open only to women. This is to provide the opportunity for a number of the most able women to build up a scientific record that would make them competitive for posts at a higher level in open competition. In the meantime it would provide role-models in the School for women postdoctoral fellows and PhD students.

As a result of continuing discussions among tenured academic staff and the Faculty Board, the School has developed a proposal for the introduction of special appointments tenable by women as non-continuing posts at levels B/C (Research Fellow/Fellow). It is proposed that these positions be named Rita Cornforth Fellowships, to honour Lady Cornforth, a distinguished Australian Chemist.

Rita Cornforth (nee Harradence) took her BSc Hons degree in 1936 from the University of Sydney, topping the list along with Arthur Birch (later Professor of Chemistry at Sydney and Manchester, and Founding Dean , Research School of Chemistry, ANU). She graduated MSc. in 1937 and in 1939 she won an 1851 Exhibition Overseas Scholarship. The other scholarship, of the two awarded annually among the six Australian Universities existing at that time, was won by her future husband (later Sir John Cornforth) who was one year behind her at Sydney. They both chose to work for their D. Phil. Degrees at the University of Oxford. Rita Harradence and John Cornforth were married in 1941 and, while rasing three children, worked together at the national Instsitute for Medical Research (first at Hamstead, then at Mill Hill) from 1946 to 1962, and subsequently at the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology (Shell Research Ltd). They published 41 papers in collaboration. Their first joint research, at Oxford as Medical Research Council scholars, was on the chemistry of penicillin; later, they addressed the biosynthesis of steroids from mavalonic acid and fundamental studies of enzyme stereochemistry, leading to the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1975 to Sir John (jointly with Vladimir Prelog). In his Nobel Lecture, Sir John paid tribute to his wife's pivitol contributions to their joint work: "...with patience and great experimental skill [she] executed much of the chemical synthesis on which the success of the work was founded."

An advertisement has been drafted in the following terms:

Applications are invited from women for the first appointments to newly established Rita Cornforth Fellowships for research in areas of chemistry related to the goals of the Research School of Chemistry.

These fellowships named in honour of the distinguished Australian chemist, Rita Cornforth, have been created for women with high academic potential and carry special conditions designed to assist the successful candidates in establishing their research careers.

The appointment may be held on a part-time basis for limited periods to allow for family commitments.

Financial provision will be made for research assistance up to the level of a postdoctoral fellowship.

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